1/31/2014

TV on DVD Review: Bonnie & Clyde (2013)




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More than just a movie, biopic or true-crime saga, director Arthur Penn’s now iconic 1967 slice of American filmmaking Bonnie and Clyde ushered in our own country’s cinematic response to the outside world, following in the footsteps of post-World War II Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave of the late 1950s.

Featuring a new urgent style of editing, an emphasis on questions rather than answers and starring counter-culture antiheroes who went against the status quo in the wake of the Vietnam draft era, endless assassinations of political figures and general unrest, Bonnie and Clyde sent shockwaves through American filmgoers.

Furthermore, Penn’s feature film easily paved the way for the impact of the titles and associated filmmakers that would follow with the subsequent releases of Easy Rider, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy.

A film with Freudian subtext, Penn’s masterpiece of American moviemaking fearlessly linked sex and violence together including a causal reference to Clyde Barrow’s impotence with his dependence on his gun that viewers hadn't seen before.


Yet perhaps Bonnie was most famous for Dede Allen’s brilliantly edited handling of the film’s gratuitously violent final sequence where the titular bank-robbing, gun-toting Depression era sweetheart bandits Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are put down in a hail of bloody gunfire.

Obviously, more revered for its artistry and place in filmmaking history than it is in its actual handling of the source material – when the History Channel announced that they were planning to tackle a new version of the events in the tradition of their successful Hatfields & McCoys miniseries format, it seemed like a good opportunity to set the facts straight.

A three-network effort in which History collaborated with Lifetime and A&E on the ambitious project, while it’s safe to say that no one will ever choose the 2013 two-part version from Fried Green Tomatoes filmmaker Bruce Beresford over Penn’s original in terms of longevity and impact, this grand, well-made ensemble drama still manages to keep us watching, sometimes even in scenes long after they should’ve yelled “Cut!”

Whereas Dede Allen’s pacing was chaotic and fast, the leisurely pace of this miniseries bogs down the all-too-important mid-section of this roughly three hour presentation (four with commercial) and causes us to stifle a few yawns as the couple disagrees about their robbery strategy and goes on the run.


The narrative throughline of the miniseries is challenged that much more by the addition of a strange psychic energy to Barrow as he’s given the gift (or rather curse) of seeing negative events in the future via ominous warning signs that indicate how he and those around him might die.

While it does admittedly add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings and is effective with regard to the fate of his brother Buck, it’s also a peculiar artistic choice that continually pulls us out of the otherwise solid production’s admirable attention to detail and gorgeous art direction that makes us feel lost in the depressing era setting.

Though the script is overall steeped in facts, the motives behind the mayhem have been drastically changed, reframing the criminal history as being all the product of Bonnie Parker (Holliday Grainger) as the Lady Macbeth style mastermind, manipulator and maneater as opposed to the along-for-the-ride accomplice she’d previously been portrayed as in pop culture.

Using her sexuality and feminine wiles to bend her lover to her will in her quest for fame, in this questionable reconfiguration Bonnie is painted as the brains behind the operation whereas Emile Hirsch’s Clyde would rather retire, settle down and raise a whole bunch of baby Bonnies and Clydes.


While this new gender reversal power switch never fully works and indeed comes off as slightly misogynistic given how out-of-sync with the facts the history of Bonnie’s gun-handling was (especially in an onscreen scene when she’s selected to be the murderer of a father on Christmas), the talented cast plays the hell out of it, milking the drama for all it’s worth.

And in all her character’s various cons and manipulations, Holliday Grainger is a revelation – reminding us of Renee Zellweger’s turn as Roxy Hart in Chicago in one particularly witty courtroom scene where she flashes her leg, faints, and flirts her way out of a jail sentence. The liveliest actor in the film, Grainger reminds us once again why the two were dubbed Bonnie and Clyde in that order.

Also working in some more detail about the time period including newsreel footage, articles and references to John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd as Clyde’s voice-over asks if people are a product of their times (if all they’re seeing are people taking the violent, easy ways out of poverty), this miniseries does benefit from opening up the narrative to offer a wider view of the facts.

Showing us how the couple was presented in the media and spending a good deal of time via a fascinating subplot in the area of journalism to dwell on ethical responsibility, actress Elizabeth Reaser turns in an excellent performance as a conflicted crime reporter who isn’t sure whether her coverage of Bonnie and Clyde constitutes aiding and abetting the two or if she should be using her press power to judge.


Also featuring a stellar supporting cast including William Hurt as legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and his Broadcast News co-star Holly Hunter as Bonnie’s mother, while the miniseries does suffer a bit in terms of its pacing and historical errors, it is commendable in its attempt to try and expand upon the story we know so well to serve up a greater account of their history.

Though a bit suspiciously sexist in its primal motivations of Bonnie as the bossy woman and Clyde as the lovesick beau (particularly when you factor in that the writers were male and also that it’s contrary to the historical accounts of Parker and Barrow), when you put the characterizations aside, it’s nonetheless the closest chronicle we’ve seen of their crimes so far.

Nonetheless, it’s a shame that the History Channel didn’t ask itself the same ethical questions that Reaser’s character did and include a nothing-but-the-facts feature-length documentary on the DVD set’s otherwise light (roughly twenty minute long) special features disc to balance out the misrepresentations in the miniseries.

Flaws and slim supplementals aside, this Bonnie and Clyde is still a gorgeously produced miniseries that’s sure to steal your interest for the length of its three hour running time, thanks largely in part to the criminally charming cast. 



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

1/30/2014

Blu-ray Review: Charlie Countryman (2013)




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Original Title: The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman

Hallucinatory and hypnotic – there is a masterpiece of a movie to be found in Frederick Bond’s ultraviolent, dark-as-night valentine Charlie Countryman. Unfortunately and no offense to Shia LaBeouf’s no-holds-barred portrayal of the eponymous lead who’d been sleepwalking through life and is now beginning to feel, the most memorable storyline of the entire movie has absolutely nothing to do with the title character.

Instead, told in flashback and voice-over by the always impressive Evan Rachel Wood, we’re filled in on the unexpectedly riveting back-story of her Beauty and the Beast like romance with the horrific underworld gangster Nigel (a terrifying Mads Mikkelsen).

Sidelined by a near-death encounter, Nigel convalesced in a flat above the Bucharest café where Wood’s gifted yet naïve and sheltered cellist played for customers from morning until night. Growing stronger day by day and note by note – Nigel not only found himself healed by the transformative power of her music but also falling in love with the woman whose playing saved his life before he’d ever laid eyes on her.


And (as Wood’s Gabi explains to Charlie) it was only after the two began a whirlwind romance did Gabi realize that although she saved Nigel’s life, by getting involved with Nigel, she’d forever jeopardized her own as once the afterglow wore off, she learned there was nothing beautiful about this particular beast.

Revealed late into Charlie, it’s only once we reach this point of explanation where Gabi tells LaBeouf’s hopelessly smitten American tourist just how on Earth she could’ve ever married a man who stalks and threatens the lives of her as well as anyone who looks at her twice that we realize what had been missing thus far in the film. Charlie Countryman's missing ingredient was anything resembling an actual and involving storyline.


While Bond’s feature filmmaking debut based on the screenplay by Matt Drake had been undeniably interesting for the first hour, it was ultimately salvaged thanks to his background as a commercial director who knows how to milk style over substance for all its worth and keep us watching for the eye candy alone.

Likewise, the meandering approach taken thus far had only proven why you can’t make great films out of books by Beat Generation authors in that they valued artistry and rhythm over structure and storylines.

Saddled with an uneasy hero in the form of LaBeouf’s American in existential crisis (following the death of his mother), Charlie’s main impetus for action in the film is reaction.

Constantly set in motion by outside stimuli (including conversations with two separate ghosts), Charlie is knocked down like a stack of dominoes from frame one and this process is repeated for a majority of the first act as he passively reacts to people, places and situations. It isn’t until he meets Gabi that he decides to make a decision in his own right, even going as far as to admit that he doesn’t “get feelings” very often.


Although LaBeouf commits himself fully to the role, the way his character bounces back from depressive funk to manic screwball in the blink of an eye, it’s almost as if the screenwriter was as uninterested in him as the audience and kept changing his persona stream-of-consciousness style as he wrote to see if Charlie would suddenly “get interesting.”

While thankfully the film and in turn LaBeouf’s character is augmented by a rather ingenious coda that symbolically harks back to the film’s opening imagery, adding a surprisingly deep layer of extra meaning to the circle of life motif and film’s original title of The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, unfortunately it doesn’t make up for Charlie's divertingly creative if narratively all-over-the-place first two-thirds.

Nonetheless, Bond utilizes his commercial background to his credit, infusing Charlie Countryman with some infectious moments of true romance and stylistic breaths of fresh air (courtesy of his entire behind-the-scenes team including cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and editor Hughes Winborne) that come to life in this sparkling Blu-ray transfer.


With this in mind, Bond is undoubtedly someone to watch in the future of cinema. Nonetheless I can only hope that he’ll choose a far more solid screenplay and take the longer art-form of feature filmmaking into greater consideration to make a film that truly maximizes its running time rather than just passing time until its next out-of-this-world scene that makes it seem like it’s a group of short films strung together rather than a cohesive long one.

While Charlie is admirable for its artistic achievements alone (including the aforementioned mesmerizing segment that wouldn’t have been out of place in music themed film festival alongside The Red Violin and Three Colors: Blue),unfortunately the least fascinating thing about Charlie Countryman is Charlie Countryman.


While it’s hardly LaBeouf’s fault as Drake’s script is – just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – filled with far too many, richer drawn Mercutio-like figures (including scene-stealers Mads Mikkelsen and Til Schweiger), it is interesting how many times they name-drop Robert Redford characters and movies with regard to LaBeouf.

Perhaps covertly apologizing to his fans for the poorly written character, the film-in-film meta-modern reference to the actor’s far more stellar work acting alongside Redford in the recent The Company You Keep provides a great recommendation for LaBeouf enthusiasts wanting to see something that actually makes the most of his talent and charm.

Reminiscent of In Bruges and A Life Less Ordinary, not to mention the tripper sequences of Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe – which also has star Evan Rachel Wood in common – this official Sundance Film Festival selection is now available to rent or own on disc and download.



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

1/29/2014

Blu-ray Review: The Prey (2011)



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A Hollywoodized French thriller, One Missed Call director Eric Valette lets his movie’s mostly star-spangled banner of influences proudly wave over the course of The Prey’s fast-moving 105 minute running time.

A brutal yet efficient work of Hitchcock-in-Hollywood-era infused Fugitive style suspense, The Prey transcends its all-too-familiar recycled plot-points thanks to the magnetism of its leads and heart-stopping action choreography that rivals some of America’s big budget best.


After Franck (Albert Dupontel), our imprisoned bank robber antihero breaks his personal code of ethics of keeping his head down, doing his time in silence and not trusting anyone, he finds he’s placed his entire family in danger after his unrelenting sense of human decency forces him to intervene when three men enter his cell and start beating his cellmate to death.

A convicted pedophile and child rapist who swears he’s innocent, after the unquestionably tough Franck gets involved, he lets his guard down and allows the man he saved (Stephane Debac) to deliver a coded message to his financially strapped wife and daughter that alludes to the whereabouts of the stolen bank loot he stashed before his arrest.

After the rape victim rescinds her testimony and Debac is released early, Franck is visited by an obsessive Gendarme Captain who hasn’t stopped working Debac’s case, warning Franck that the seemingly meek man he knows as Jean-Louis Maurel is in all-actuality an active predatory serial killer who’s not only eluded capture and conviction thus far but has also made Franck’s family his next target.

Escaping from prison just months before his scheduled release, the quick-thinking Franck finds his worst fears realized when he discovers his wife and daughter have been taken and the money is gone.


Relying on his street-smarts and any inside knowledge he has on Maurel that he can use to his advantage, he sets out to hunt him down – a feat made that much harder when Maurel turns the tables on Franck and pins his crimes on him, sending the police after our put-upon lead.

While most of the force is happy to simply add one and one together, Alice Taglioni’s brainy, beautiful detective Claire relies on instinct, knowing that something about this new math doesn’t calculate. Chided for putting “feminine intuition” over Maurel’s planted DNA of Franck's, Claire follows up on her hunches, which adds an interesting police procedural plotline to what was otherwise shaping up to be a Taken meets any number of formulaic good guy vs. bad guy hunter vs. hunted by-the-numbers B-movies.

Elevated by the arresting performances of the ensemble cast including an absolutely chilling turn by Natacha Regnier as Maurel’s complicit partner-in-crime wife who procures female victims for her husband – while the unsettling subject matter and rather bloodily gruesome fight scenes are carefully edited to avoid turning exploitative, The Prey is nonetheless best to be avoided by more sensitive viewers and perhaps best suited for daytime viewing for the nightmare-prone.


At the same time, perhaps far too hopeful to evoke fear –  the film’s repetitive-to-annoyance insistent Bernard Herrmann style score overstays its welcome early on – losing its effectiveness by punctuating far too many scenes with the same pounded out “Are You Scared Yet?” thematic riffs over and over.

And while a few plot-points (including a stakeout by a pharmacy) are a dubious contrivance at best, The Prey still manages to keep you engrossed thanks to its effectively edited sense of urgency in the film's pacing and the unwavering passion for the project as embodied by a truly gifted cast of actors that lose themselves in their roles.

Offering viewers a choice of watching Valette’s 2011 thriller in its original French soundtrack or dubbed English language version to try and attract an even wider audience of subtitle weary action fans in its recent Blu-ray release, the Cohen Media Group distributed title also offers an interview with the director, a look at the theatrical trailer as well as a behind-the-scenes making-of-featurette.

Given a technically impressive transfer to disc, while Valette’s Prey may not offer much that an avid action movie fan hasn’t seen before, by following in the footsteps of Tell No One and other recent French thrillers, it nonetheless reminds viewers that the tale of a man on the run trying to save his family is compelling film fodder in any country and every language.   



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Freezer (2014)


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In the hopes of delivering a new spin on a standard thriller, Freezer screenwriters Tom Doganoglu and Shane Weisfeld took two tried and true storytelling devices and put them together in an unusual way in Backdraft cinematographer turned frequent television director Mikael Salomon’s new film.

For starters, they've employed Hitchcock’s classic wrong man paradigm to follow the plight of an unsuspecting everyman who finds himself persecuted by villains due to a case of mistaken identity and used it as a jumping off point. Upping the ante even more, Freezer sets the action in one confined, risky space to capitalize fully on the life and death stakes of a man whose environment is just as dangerous as the captors who’ve placed him there.

Predictably of course, given the title of the Salomon’s latest effort newly released on Anchor Bay Blu-ray, Freezer takes place in a freezer where – in an ironic pop-culture twist – recent Hostages hostage-taker Dylan McDermott embraces the same situation from the other side.


Having been knocked unconscious at his birthday dinner (offscreen), as the film opens McDermott wakes up to find himself restrained with tie-wraps, held hostage and locked inside a freezer.

Unlike the superior, survivalist tale of existential mystery and horror set inside a coffin in Buried that found Ryan Reynolds trying to escape from his deadly trap in a veritable one-man show, Freezer uses the clever Panic Room concept to hook us into the storyline before it ultimately devolves into a standard crime thriller.

At its best when it remains as genuine and authentic as possible as McDermott’s New York mechanic tries to figure his own way out of the mess with a little help from a cell phone chat with a policeman, Freezer goes very wrong, very fast when it turns into a dubious pissing contest between McDermott’s Robert and his Russian mob captors who suspect him of stealing eight million of their dollars.

Unsure what kind of tone it’s going for – Robert’s instantly over familiar, sarcastic wise-cracking banter with his captor including a suspiciously out-of-place flirtation with the woman we quickly realize is running the show seems neither plausible nor logical.


And while it may be used to make us question just who Robert really is as well as if we can trust him or another hostage (played by Peter Facinelli) who’s been seriously wounded, it’s so bizarre that it makes it hard to feel that invested in the fate of a man we can’t begin to relate to at all.

Filled with multiple twists including so many role reversals and revelations in the final act that you may need to watch a few scenes a second time, while I applaud Freezer’s inventive concept and obvious ambition, McDermott’s poorly written, overly chatty ‘50s stand-up comedian meets Humphrey Bogart characterization grates on the nerves and alienates viewers fairly early into the movie.

Honestly, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for the otherwise charismatic actor given his truly awful dialogue and lighthearted take as though he’d been told to portray Robert like a long-lost cousin of John Travolta's Chili Palmer from Get Shorty whereas everyone else in the film had been directed to play it 100% straight.

To his credit, Mikael Salomon made the most out of his limited budget to build an actual freezer via a container room with removable walls to help heighten the rest of the performances and freely sweep a camera in to get any angle he wished as a gifted cinematographer. And this decision pays off as the gritty monochrome look of the freezer location grounds the action and helps sell the B-movie even when McDermott’s poorly written character threatens to swing from the rafters and chew the scenery with odd come-ons to his female captor about making love to Doctor Zhivago and the like.


In the end, it's just average for a thriller, which is particularly disappointing considering the talent involved on both sides of the lens. As promising as it begins, Freezer just isn’t able to deliver on its potential and becomes instantly forgettable once you press eject.

Nonetheless, given the one set-piece, something tells me that it might've fared far better on the stage than the screen, where the most could’ve been made of the film's thriller paradigm in the hands of the right script-writer like a David Mamet or a Christopher McQuarrie who know how to con an audience with the best of them.

Despite its flaws, Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray transfer of Freezer into its combo pack release is flawless in picture and sound. Serving up the filmmaker's work in two additional formats of DVD and Ultraviolet HD, the solid presentation also boasts behind-the-scenes bonus material including making of featurettes and interviews that are even more intriguing than the film itself.

As I haven’t seen Salomon and McDermott’s earlier collaboration via the TNT miniseries The GridI can't evaluate whether or not it’s worth a recommendation. And while I can say that although this may be worth a look for rainy afternoon or sick day fare for McDermott fans only, discerning viewers looking for a vastly superior thriller centering on Russians and Americans would do best to skip this in favor of Salomon’s pitch-perfect TNT miniseries The Company, from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott.



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

1/28/2014

Film Movement DVD Review: Garibaldi's Lovers (2012)




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Original Title: The Commander and The Stork

Because he focuses on the topic of relationships, writer/director Silvio Soldini has never run out of ideas for new feature film material. And given his instinctive understanding that by fixating on the complex, always evolving nature of human interactions – from familial dysfunction to happy accidents, missed connections, new friends and romantic love – Silvio Soldini has been able to write about everything.

Finding new ways of telling a relationship story with each passing year, the Italian filmmaker has produced one critically acclaimed award-winner after another – venturing into comedy, drama, whimsy, magical realism and even erotica to craft films full of enthusiasm, ideas and above all passion for his topics and characters.


His affection for the people that populate every frame of his work is infectious and his newest confection Garibaldi’s Lovers is a charming if overly ambitious – bordering on messy – celebration of a handful of overlooked outsiders whose lives begin to overlap in a number of interesting ways.

A well-intentioned people-mover filled with missed connections and unlikely new alliances a la his breakthrough U.S. film festival favorite Bread and Tulips, Garibaldi’s Lovers muddies up what could’ve been a wonderful, whimsical comedic tale of lonely people coming together with too many distractions from start to finish.


The greatest problem stems from an ineffective magical realism style framing device wherein the statues of historical figures (including the film’s eponymous Giuseppe Garibaldi) converse with one another complete with political digs and insider banter only those well-versed in Italian culture and history will get. Trying to milk this technique for satirical humor, the statues also evaluate the changes that exist in contemporary metropolitan Italy 150 years after the country’s unification.

Whereas that one device would be enough to make the film only slightly whimsical, Soldini indulges his creativity to the max, incorporating the existence of a ghost who drops by her old apartment for conversations in the middle of the night and a boy who speaks to and understands a stork. Needless to say, in Garibaldi’s Lovers, there are just way too many ideas at play before we even delve into the problems facing the main characters.


Essentially, the film tells the story of Leone, a hardworking widower and father of two who struggles to raise his increasingly independent son Elia (the aforementioned “stork whisperer”) and daughter who’s been publically humiliated after her boyfriend posted a sexually explicit video featuring her that he filmed without her knowledge.

Worried he’s doing everything wrong, Leone’s only solace comes from nightly “conversations” with the ghost of his deceased wife who shows up out-of-the-blue still wearing the same bathing suit that she’d had on when she perished after an ore accidentally whacked her on the head.


Desperately in need of moving on, Leone is surprised to discover the stirrings of romantic attraction to a hopelessly klutzy yet adorable, bespectacled, gifted young artist named Diana who’s been jilted out of rent money by a corrupt client whose shady dealings found him put behind bars before he could pay her.

Hired to paint a gaudy, over-the-top fresco in the office of the lawyer who’s taken on her case – it’s there Diana first crosses paths with Leone when he arrives to file suit against his daughter’s ex-boyfriend to get that video taken down from the internet.

Further connecting the two individuals – after getting caught shoplifting frozen frogs to feed his pet stork, Elia finds a far more politically subversive Tuesdays With Morrie like-minded friend in an elderly rebel who just so happens to be Diana’s landlord.


Unfortunately, as promising as the main plot is, the film is a tad too overly complex given the sheer number of supporting characters and subplots that are introduced but don’t have enough screen time to fully develop.

And while Garibaldi’s Lovers would have been infinitely better off without the titular framing device that Soldini culled from the Alain Tanner film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, it’s nonetheless salvaged by a winning intersection of all of the major characters and plot-points in an inventive final act that finds Leone traveling to Switzerland to locate his son.

A bit of a letdown compared to Soldini’s vastly superior Bread and Tulips as well as his earlier Film Movement release Agata and the Storm, it’s still far more audience friendly than the depressingly angry family dysfunction drama Days and Clouds.

Working off a story idea he conceived with two previous collaborators, Doriana Leondeff and Marco Pettenello, Silvio Soldini’s newest release (which was originally titled The Commander and the Stork) has just been served up on Film Movement DVD and download for non-members after premiering last year as part of their DVD-of-the-Month-Club subscription.

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)




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While most people have a tendency to try and present the best version of themselves – spinning small yarns of white lies to protect feelings or reassure someone you really do like their homemade gift of scratchy wool polka dotted socks – there are those who lie so often and easily that it’s their main conversational approach from one situation to the next.

And in Woody Allen’s twenty-first Writer’s Guild nominated original screenplay Blue Jasmine, he’s created one of his most fascinating (anti)heroines in at least two decades of filmmaking via the eponymous Jasmine brought so unnervingly to life with unparalleled tenacity by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett in yet another remarkable performance that’s poised to garner her a second Academy Award.


Named Jeanette at birth but later changing that handle to the seductive Jasmine to suit the romantic life she dreams for herself as a hopeless fantasist, Blanchett’s Jasmine is the type of individual who’s taken the theory that we’re all the star of our own “movie” quite literally. Living a life of theatricality, Jasmine speaks in soliloquies to nobody in particular and hopes for a new plot twist whenever things don’t go her way.

One of those aforementioned individuals who’s told so many lies, half-truths and slightly altered accounts and likewise been lied to (and played like a record by her dreamy, manipulative older husband Hal) – when we first meet Jasmine it only takes us a moment to realize that she can no longer tell the difference between fact, fiction, reality or fantasy.


And while admittedly for a woman who’s been heartbroken and suffered a nervous breakdown in the past, the title Blue Jasmine fits accordingly, it doubles as a recurring theme in its own right as the start of the tale Jasmine tells to anyone who will listen how Hal met her standing alone at a party while the song “Blue Moon” was playing and swept her off her feet.

Moreover, that pitch-perfect “Blue Moon” lyric of Jasmine standing alone serves a dual purpose in Allen’s film as it also foreshadows Jasmine as a woman who will always be somehow left off center, off to the side, outside looking in at the real world she rejects when it’s judged side-by-side with her own fantasy.

In a telling flashback, Alec Baldwin's Hal confesses that he fell in love with her name which – because it is in itself a lie – reaffirms the fact that he fell in love not with the woman but with the idea or fantasy of her. Therefore, we realize that Hal not only never really knew this woman he called his wife at all but also – considering the way he created his Madoff like Ponzi schemes – preferred a life of magical reality than actual reality and therefore inspired Jasmine’s tendency to do the same before their lies all came crashing down like a house of cards.


A delicate romantic who is having a tough time getting back on her feet after she lost everything and was ostracized from her Park Avenue social circle following the FBI's arrest of her shady, philandering husband for Madoff-like crimes, Jasmine travels to San Francisco to stay with her adopted younger sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

Upon first glance, Jasmine seems like she’s wandered in from Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie or Streetcar Named Desire as a Blanche DuBois type dependent upon the kindness of strangers. And it's a reference that fits indeed as further research reveals that Blanchett had recently played that role on Broadway and Allen had actually nixed a scene in Jasmine that took place on a streetcar for fear it would be deemed too much of a dead-on homage.

And while the hint of DuBois is a given, in my eyes however, I see Jasmine as a distinct Woody Allen character with roots in the auteur’s onscreen Annie Hall alter-ego Alvy Singer. In Allen's breakthrough mainstream success, he described himself in a youthful flashback featuring a Marilyn Monroe look alike as a person who always had a hard time telling the difference between imagined and actual reality.

Thus, a Williams/Allen hybrid by way of Blanchett – as the film opens Jasmine arrives in San Francisco and settles in with the hardworking, blue collar, divorced mother of two, Ginger. Revisiting the same complex sisterly sibling dynamic evident in Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters, as the two women – a complete study in contrasts – try to make the best of the situation, it becomes obvious that Jasmine’s arrival is the equivalent of a powder keg ready to explode in Ginger’s relationship with her loving but hotheaded, fittingly-named boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale).


Nosy and loud, intriguingly Chili is the only one able to see through all of Jasmine’s pretentions and phony heirs to call out the way she’s alternately neglected and taken advantage of Ginger in the past. Adding to this, the film relies on repeated flashback sequences to jump forward and backward in the narrative to offer us a glimpse at the unromantic reality behind the breakup of both sisters’ marriages.

Focusing on the way their relationships started to go downhill when Ginger and her then-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) visited Jasmine in New York and began to see the truth behind Hal’s façade as he two-timed Jasmine – the beginning of the end for all was set in motion when Jasmine foolishly talked her relatives into trusting their hard-earned life savings to Hal to invest.


A multilayered film that’s richly acted and interpersonally complex by way of the number of subplots and characters it’s able to successfully juggle without shortchanging any of them, Blue Jasmine further shows respect for its audience’s intelligence by unveiling the events of two different timelines simultaneously.

And due to its dense structure, a second viewing makes you appreciate the way it cleverly pays off on ideas and lines in one narrative a few acts later on in the second timeline. Yet perhaps Blue Jasmine’s greatest feat is in the way that it never foreshadows its most surprising character driven plot twist that leaves viewers stunned and likewise eager to go back and rewatch certain moments for a second or third time since it makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about a given character.

A daring film in which the whole success of Allen’s emotional rollercoaster hinges on an unreliable narrator that’s forever changing her story, getting lost in the past and altering the facts of any given situation to best deal with the crisis at hand – Blue Jasmine serves as a stunning showcase for Cate Blanchett’s unparalleled talent.


As much an exploration of what happens when the American dream falls apart as it is a portrait of a woman under the influence of fantasy, Blue Jasmine is as topical as it is timeless.

Not just Woody Allen’s strongest film since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Jasmine is certain to have a much greater impact than Vicky in the future as one of his most rewarding contemporary classics that recalls the existential exploration of life on display in his ‘70s and ‘80s masterpieces. In other words – and much like its main character and leading lady – Blue Jasmine stands alone indeed.



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

1/27/2014

Blu-ray Review: In the Heat of the Night (1967)




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On paper, In the Heat of the Night is one hell of a whodunit with all the requisite ingredients of a good mystery from the discovery of a body to the introduction to our intelligent, worthy detective that must weed out the lies and red herrings to identify the true motive and murderer by the time the final credits roll.

In fact, the script is so thrilling in the way that it sets up the case from the very first scene that Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel garnered Silliphant the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Mystery (Motion Picture).

Making you appreciate the subtle nuances of the mystery that much more with each subsequent viewing, if In the Heat of the Night had just played out onscreen as a well-executed police procedural whodunnit it would’ve made for a fine night at the movies indeed.

But the fact that the excellently crafted case is in all actuality the least memorable thing about Night says something extraordinary indeed about the quality of the work overall and how it transcended its script to become a cultural touchstone in American filmmaking.


A watershed work for its treatment of racism in both its white and black characters, Night illustrates the importance of character-driven storytelling to help the talented cast of actors bring authentically real, flesh and blood human beings to life on the big screen.

At the same time, given the fact that it tapped into the issues facing the U.S. at the moment of its release, Norman Jewison’s five-time Oscar winning wonder also foreshadowed the potential of the cinematic medium as an instrument capable of holding up a mirror to society to bring about social change.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that those working behind the scenes including editor Hal Ashby and cinematographer Haskell Wexler would go on to direct films in their own right that also took the pulse of the country in the late sixties and early seventies from Ashby’s The Last Detail and Coming Home to Wexler’s Medium Cool.

Yet more than anything, the most memorable thing about In the Heat of the Night was Sidney Poitier’s boldly daring portrayal of a proud, intelligent black man who just wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Bravely dishing back the abuse he’s served by the racist white men onscreen as exemplified by what MGM’s Blu-ray release dubbed “The Slap Heard Around the World,” perhaps the most groundbreaking and iconic scene in Jewison’s film finds Poitier’s police Detective Virgil Tibbs slapping a white plantation owner across the face as payback for the hit he’d been given.

Released a full year before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and before the burgeoning Black Power Movement took hold, Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs was a character the likes of which American filmgoers had never seen onscreen before.


Educated, smart and given a position of authority – far from being the embodiment of civil disobedience as seen in newsreel footage of Freedom Riders remaining still while they were beaten —Tibbs not only dared to fight back but he also had seen and been through enough that he felt a certain amount of reverse racism himself.

Called out for his pride and arrogance – one of the things that made Poitier’s powerful portrayal so fascinating to watch was the fact that his flaws were on display right alongside his strengths and in some cases, we witnessed both simultaneously which made him instantly understandable and identifiable to everyone watching (regardless of color).

And while on the surface, it wouldn’t appear that Tibbs would relate to the southern white police chief played by the incredible Rod Steiger as the two men begrudgingly work alongside one another after visiting Philadelphia detective Tibbs is ordered by his chief to assist with a high profile murder investigation, we realize that they have much more in common than they’d like to admit.


Though the police department’s racism and incompetence is on full display in the first act of the film when Tibbs – in town visiting his mother – is arrested on suspicion of murder before he flashes his badge, we eventually come to discover that Steiger’s chief is an outsider as well.

New to the position which was previously filled by a man who never would have stood by and let Tibbs slap a white man back, Steiger is a man pulled in two directions at the same time – just like Tibbs.

Likewise, the chief's ability to cut right through the good ol’ boy bull and acknowledge the fact that he legitimately needs Tibbs’s help in addition to the way he uses reverse psychology with Tibbs (understanding that he should stay if only to show the dumb white men how it’s done) proves he’s no dummy.

While both men shine in their multilayered, complex performances that heighten and challenge the other actors in each scene, Jewison’s crew expertly taps into the tension of their complicated dynamic with visceral cinematographic techniques that ratchets up the danger facing Virgil in the south.


Filmed with gritty urgency to bring us into the frame and even – at times – push and pull us in a police chase or force us into a corner along with Virgil when racist thugs trap him in a warehouse, Wexler’s lensing and Ashby’s edits make the scenes come to life far more than traditional static point and shoot filmmaking with predictable talking head cuts.

From Ray Charles’s terrific title tune to Quincy Jones’s pulsating, contemporary score, everything about In the Heat of the Night feels somehow newer and bolder than typical studio fare of the era, which is doubly impressive when you realize that Night was made by forward thinking producers at a major studio.

Gorgeously restored and transferred to a flawless 1080p Blu-ray high definition presentation, In the Heat of the Night looks and sounds better than ever in MGM’s new release that boasts filmmaker feature commentary (with Jewison, Wexler, Steiger and Lee Grant) along with three informative featurettes that offer insight into not only the when, what, where, who, why and how Night was brought to life but its historical legacy as well.


Featuring analysis and observations from film scholars, filmmakers and academics specializing in African-American studies among others, In the Heat of the Night’s Blu-ray debut seems poised to appeal to film, sociology and history professors and movie buffs alike.

Noteworthy for the number of times you can watch Jewison’s work and uncover something new from a technical or intellectual standpoint, MGM’s stunning ’67 release is more than just a thrilling mystery – it celebrates the mysteries of man as well, by forcing us to take a good long look in the mirror that is Jewison’s movie and check our preconceptions at the door.

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

1/23/2014

Blu-ray Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)




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Alternate Title: Twenty Feet from Stardom

In the world of music, it seems there are two types of people. On the one hand you have those who live for the kind of feeling you can only get from a stadium full of people screaming your name and applauding until you encore to the point that they’ll do anything to become (and stay) famous. On the other hand, there are those who are in it for love – the ones who just simply love to sing, play or perform for the sake of music itself.

Of the two, as an interviewee eloquently puts it in filmmaker Morgan Neville’s passionately made and deeply personal documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, the latter is the one that comes from a much purer, higher calling.

Yet as we learn again and again in this important and long overdue cinematic ode to the unsung heroes of popular music who have sung their hearts out for over sixty years on some of the greatest singles in the history of the art form, the move from back of the stage to front-and-center is incredibly hard to make.

A twenty-foot path – the journey from singing backup to taking over that microphone as a solo artist or front-person – is repeatedly described as one of the longest and most fraught with peril journeys that a singer can make.

As Bruce Springsteen admits, it’s “more of a mental leap” than a physical one. Lead singers, the film notes, must possess a natural sense of ego and narcissism along with a strong desire to sing in one unique voice verses the chameleon like role of a backup singer who can change their sound quite drastically from one tune to the next while putting the good of the group’s sound before themselves. And in a field that thrives on unique “star quality,” it’s this reversal of thinking and this strong sense of paradigm shift for those attempting to make the leap that often gets in the way.

As most often the world’s very best backup singers first started out performing as children in church choirs, this ability to avoid fixating on your own musical persona and instead “lock in” with the other voices and instruments on a given piece is something they’ve done their whole life.


A rare instinctive gift that can’t be taught, this technique is coveted by the biggest names in music to elevate some of our greatest songs in order to make them that much more soulful, more human and more visceral than anything that can be done on a computer.

In fact, even though we’re unfamiliar with most of the backup singers’ names, as soon as we hear them sing, we realize we know their versatile, instantly recognizable voices and find ourselves repeatedly awed by their ability to adapt their sound so completely from one smash record to the next.

And although their role has been highlighted in rock history as “the colored girls” that sing “do do do” in Lou Reed’s famous yet off-putting “Walk On the Wild Side” refrain, the interviewees on film argue that there’s power in his allusion to them and their role as proud members of a “musical sisterhood.”

Furthermore 20 Feet reasons that since they’re the ones bringing to life pop music’s instantly addictive hooks, they’re actually the ones that we sing along with in our cars on classics such as The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” where Merry Clayton’s cry of “Rape, Murder” being a shot away still packs her intended punch of blowing Mick Jagger and the boys out of the room.

Historically overlooked, whether they were hired to “sound white” or help rock ‘n rollers “sound black," become “the first action figures of R&B” as the exciting song and dance vixens that backed up Ike Turner or help secularize church music by moaning Ray Charles’ sexy form of call and response to “ghosting” for The Crystals, their fascinating stories run the gamut. From mezzo soprano diva highs to blues-worthy lows, we hear it all including near wall-to-wall music that helps bring their tales to life.

 

Featuring rare, original recordings and snippets of live performances – this pitch perfect Blu-ray looks as stellar as it sounds in its 1080p high-definition film transfer.

The highest-grossing documentary of 2013 and one that’s earned a richly deserved Academy Award nomination for the category, this gorgeous Blu-ray release debuts on the same day as other cinematic celebrations of African-American filmmaking including Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the Blu-ray release of In the Heat of the Night just in time for the Martin Luther King holiday.

While a bonus soundtrack disc or Ultraviolet HD digital copy would’ve served as an added attraction to the stellar feature film, the undeniably informative, crowd-pleasing documentary which chronicles the art form’s history up through recent years remains a vital, must-see cinematic portrait of the singers who’ve helped tell the story of popular music one gorgeously sung note at a time.



Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.