10/30/2014

Film Movement DVD Collection Review – Beyond Borders: Stories of Interfaith Friendship (Arranged; A Bottle in the Gaza Sea; Foreign Letters)



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Beyond Borders
Faces of Israel

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Released alongside Film Movement's Faces of Israel four-disc film collection of works which offer viewers a snapshot of the complexity and diversity of life in contemporary Israel, the companion box set Beyond Borders celebrates the differences that unite and divide us in a humanistic trio of titles set in the United States as well as the topical region.


But rather than take you through them alphabetically or chronologically, I'm taking a cue from the films included in Borders to go beyond the expected – serving up a review of the titles in the order I'd recommend watching them for the greatest cinematic impact.

 

Foreign Letters (2012)
Directed by Ela Thier

Although it’s included alongside A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, Ela Thier’s largely autobiographical effort Foreign Letters makes a first-rate companion film to the thematically similar, likewise female (co)directed tale Arranged which seems to continue on with the thesis of intercultural female friendship established in Letters.

Easily the best starting place in the Beyond Borders box set celebrating interfaith friendships from the Film Movement catalog, the work chronicles Thier’s own adolescent struggles to navigate life in a new nation where she could barely speak the language.

As the sweet, succinct, 1982-set story begins, the twelve-year-old Ellie (Noa Rotstein) writes what the audience quickly gathers is just the latest in an ongoing series of letters from America to her “best friend times infinity” back in her former Israeli home.

Charting the timeless struggle of not fitting in to not knowing where to sit at lunch, Thier takes a cue from the Peanuts specials of yesteryear by translating the English language instructions of Ellie’s everyday teacher (outside the ESL classroom) into veritable gibberish in her feature-length adaptation of her acclaimed short A Summer Rain (which is also included on the DVD).

Thier’s subtle portrait of coming-of-age in a brand new country slowly but steadily picks up momentum as Ellie finds a friend in a fellow outsider via the Vietnamese refugee Thuy (Dalena Le).


Shy and studious as well as just as self-conscious as Ellie, the two girls begin testing the waters of a fledgling friendship that was initially forged out of loneliness and necessity before they soon discover that their differences are nowhere near as important as their similarities.

Educating themselves about life in their new surroundings, the girls balance one another out while also giving each other the vital self-confidence they need to stop hiding in the shadows of a school that isn’t nearly as ready to accept them as they are ready to accept both each other as well as everyone else.

While it’s a bit structurally underwhelming as we get the feeling that Thier wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the production’s full ninety-nine minute running time (versus the original seventeen minute short which also utilized the same talented young leads), Letters nonetheless manages to overcome the bumps in the road to leave a lasting impression.

Furthermore, the film’s sheer authenticity elevates Thier's work as a timeless portrait of female adolescent existential angst that resonates as strongly today as we imagine it would've if released in its original 1982 time period.

Thus in spite of a floundering middle act that gets bogged down with somewhat episodic plotting, we're more than willing to take a cue from Ellie and give it some time to find its way.

A moving and sensitive salute to the importance of human connection as well as a completely preach-free reminder that we’re all humans with the same wants, needs, fears, laughter, and tears regardless of our language or homeland, Thier’s autobiographical cinematic journey results in one of the best family friendly offerings in the entire Film Movement catalog.

Reminding viewers of the rewards that await us when we dare to look past the popular lunch table of cliquish Twilight style commercial friendly studio fare, Foreign Letters serves as an excellent “starter” picture to introduce middle school students to the world of international filmmaking by way of characters they can relate to that likewise have something of quality to say.

 

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2011)
Directed by Thierry Binisti

Adapting a work from the “tell me” medium of literature to the “show me” medium of film is difficult enough as it is without even considering the fact that for the title in question, the story unfolds largely through the written word as the most pivotal sequences revolve around the sending and receipt of e-mail messages.

Of course, considering that the characters at the heart of A Bottle in the Gaza Sea are a French born seventeen-year-old Israeli girl (Agathe Bonitzer) and a twenty-year-old Palestinian boy (Mahmoud Shalabi) who found her cyber address included in the titular bottle, it’s safe to say that Gaza isn’t your typical pen pal saga.

Wanting to make sense of all of the suicide bombings that occur on her side of the water, the beautiful idealist Tal sends her query out to the unknown via her older brother who’s able to hurl the bottle into the Gaza Sea while carrying out his required military service.

What begins as a heated, blame-filled exchange of sarcasm and oft-heard clichéd generalizations gradually blossoms into something much more substantive as the two share their thoughts, typed snapshots of daily life, and later actual photographs that make them realize that if they’d met anywhere else under ordinary circumstances there’s a pretty strong likelihood that they would’ve become friends.

Part of the three disc Beyond Borders collection crafted to explore interfaith relationships, while Bottle might hold up well on its own, unfortunately when viewed alongside the other two vastly superior titles included in the set, it’s the weakest entry in an otherwise staggeringly impressive triple feature.

While the thematically similar Foreign Letters is much more natural in its approach, the admirable effort put forth by filmmaker Thierry Binisti to capture both points-of-view and likewise evoke empathy for each character (while simultaneously pulling you in two totally different directions) makes the film seem much better than it actually is in the end.


An unapologetically hopeful work that’s bogged down by awkward performances and emotionless English language line-reads by its young actors (which should've been subtitled along with its foreign dialogue), Bottle is an otherwise well-intentioned attempt to translate Valerie Zenatti’s award-winning novel to the screen.

Though you wish the final result would've been far more compelling, Bottle stays afloat – getting better as it continues – which results in a surprisingly moving final sequence that’s guaranteed to stay with you.

Largely wordless and therefore much more effective at conveying the real unspoken bond between the characters as two kids who connected (versus the filmic opportunities to take advantage of politically correct speechmaking), the gorgeous depiction of idealism and acceptance butting heads with bureaucracy conveys everything the filmmaker was trying to say in its memorable conclusion.

As it stands, it’s a lovely throwback to the same spirit of youthful rebellion tempered by the futility of circumstance found in the final frames of ‘50s and ‘60s French New Wave cinema (followed by the British and American pictures it influenced for a majority of the late '60s and '70s).

Moreover it’s further proof of not only Binisti’s artistry but another reminder to those adapting novels in the future that there is indeed a better way to tell the story than through too many voice-overs and shots of inboxes on computer screens.
   
 

Arranged (2007)
Directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer

Review: (Originally Published 5/1/08)

"Someone should be shooting a commercial for world peace," fourth grade teacher Nasira Khaldi (Francis Benhamou) jokes to her coworker turned friend Rochel Meshenberg (Zoe Lister-Jones) when the two women bump into one another in a New York park and encourage their younger relatives to play together.

It’s a recurring joke throughout the inviting, original and warmhearted American independent film Arranged that focuses on two young women in their early twenties who, despite their religious differences as a Muslim (Nasira) and an Orthodox Jew (Rochel), are both dealing with similar issues of parental pressure and familial obligation in the quest to marry the two teachers off.

In Rochel's case, this tradition calls for utilizing the talents of a matchmaker who pitches men to her client as if she’s selling automobiles by evaluating their job performance, sustainability and prominence. However for Nasira, it’s a bit more laid back as their father invites over a much older family friend in the hopes that his young daughter will find love with an uncouth gentleman prone to chatting animatedly with food in his mouth.

Meanwhile Rochel contends with a series of disastrous matchups including a painfully awkward first encounter with a man who acts as though he’d rather voluntarily show up for a root canal than a date, along with one man who lets himself into the place and proceeds to snoop through everything while running at the mouth his own sales pitch covering his accomplishments.

Both targets from their female principal who, in trying to compliment their beauty patronizes their beliefs by offering them money to go out and buy designer clothes and have a drink to start taking advantage of the women’s movement, the two modestly dressed new teachers sit singularly at tables away from the more daring and cliquish women their age at the school.


However, the film's leads really hit it off when children question whether or not they hate one another because of what they’ve heard on the news.

In offering the students a unity circle exercise, Rochel and Nasira conduct their own diversity celebration that seems to be far more accessible than the perfunctory district mandated training shown at the start of the film. Sure enough as the women begin spending more time together away from work, they realize they have far more in common than they first assumed.

Touchingly authentic and believably executed, directors Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer’s appealing film was a hit in the film festival circuit.

An official selection at the South by Southwest Film Festival and the Miami Jewish Film Festival, Arranged earned the audience award at Berkshire International Film Festival as well as the Grand Chameleon Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2007 Brooklyn International Film Festival before making its way to DVD from our friends at Film Movement.

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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 voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/23/2014

Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review – Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)


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What’s a Sirkian love story doing in a place like this? Based mostly on the plotline of All That Heaven Allows with additional allusions to characters and themes from director Douglas Sirk’s other successfully sudsy ‘50s melodramas (including the racial and sociological implications of Imitation of Life in particular), Ali's ingenious blend of old and new put its helmer Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the global cinema map.

However, the film marked a sharp turn from the much edgier Godard inspired political experimentation utilized in Fassbinder’s earlier fare which helped give rise to the New German Cinema ‘70s movement ushered in by the prolific filmmaker and his likeminded colleagues.


Adhering to Sirkian tradition, a lonely woman is at the heart of Fassbinder’s Ali – coming in out of the rain to take shelter in a bar populated by foreign workers of Arab descent who spend their evenings listening to the comforting sound of home epitomized by imported records blaring the songs they grew up with from an old-fashioned jukebox.

With a stormy night providing the right atmosphere for romance, Fassbinder fights against the natural tendencies to play up the rain for swoon-worthy temptation. No, intriguingly in Fassbinder’s film, it’s the woman who winds up serving the part of the human umbrella despite appearing onscreen in need of one in a gender role reversal that would never have been considered in Sirk’s pre-sexual revolution studio days of '50s Hollywood.

After a few of the bar’s regulars jokingly goad the handsome, hardworking titular character Ali (played by El Hedi ben Salem) to ask the "old woman" embodied by Brigitte Mira to dance, she eagerly – if cautiously – accepts.


And before long, the regulars realize that the true joke is on them as a simple dance flows into surprisingly easy conversation – the melodic rhythm of which takes over for the records spinning in the jukebox as it becomes the real-life soundtrack of two unlikely strangers falling in love.

After the Moroccan native does the gentlemanly thing and walks the much older widow home to her door, it’s Mira’s turn to give him shelter from the storm. Via a subtle segue that comes out so naturally it seems to even surprise herself, Mira's Emmi offers him first a drink and then impulsively a room for the night.

As the implications of the proposition begin to take shape romantically, Mira transforms from a pitiable prospect used for the amusement of strangers into the umbrella-like protector of the equally lonely man.


Yet what in Hollywood might have provided the makings of a My Man Godfrey like love story infused with laughter instead finds the two bonding from a humanistic place —seeing in one another a fellow outsider that’s been not only neglected but treated callously on levels that they might not be able to imagine but can definitely understand.

Dubbed "Ali" by racist German locals who just assume all foreigners have the same name – whereas the man’s been dehumanized by strangers, the elderly woman has been similarly mistreated by those she knows.

Ignored by her grown children unless there’s something they need, Mira’s characterization as a forgotten widow plays like something out of Ozu’s Tokyo Story – until that is – Fassbinder puts a sociological spin on his heroine as well.


Giving her a status as both a cleaning woman and wife of a now-deceased foreign husband who’d left her with his very Polish last name, Mira’s kindhearted, headstrong widow Emmi is looked down on as something non-Germanic by neighbors who view her with almost as much suspicion and disdain as they do her new live in Arab lover the very first time he walks down the hall.

Yet as much as it centers on Emmi, Fassbinder has a much tighter focus on the male character whom the filmmaker dares to follow into the most surprising of places as – after the second stage of boy gets girl finds the boy losing the girl – Fassbinder decides to bring us on a journey to the bed of another woman.

Hurt after too much conflict builds up between the two characters and blows sky high, Ali retreats from Emmi and finds solace in the arms of a metaphorically old (yet literally much younger than Emmi) flame.


Nonetheless trusting his audience to see the leads as fully complex people, Fassbinder’s risk pays off as we see both characters at their worst and best in order to better appreciate the moments of sunlight that exists in between the many storms – from the one that brought them together to the one that threatens to tear them apart.

Painting a daring canvas of an interracial multigenerational romance and the many double standards of gender inequities and hypocrisies that are woven within, although Ali could be set anywhere – in the post-WWII backdrop of Fassbinder’s portrait – we’re reminded through symbols, images, songs and all of the other elements at his disposal that people will always find a reason to hate what they fear.


And sure enough, those who inhabit Fear’s crowded frames find themselves pinned in a corner because they’re unable or unwilling to see – not the forest for the trees – but the individual people in their line of sight for the many labels they’ve applied to them.

Not understanding that the best answer to fear is love and finding someone you can wait out the storm with regardless of the weather, Fassbinder’s beautifully conflicted, existentially complicated yet elegantly simple humanistic search of his country’s Soul has been given a tremendously vibrant docudrama level transfer to Criterion Blu-ray.

Although it's infused with a variety of revealing bonus features that offer new insight into this contemporary classic including a BBC produced documentary about the New German Cinema movement, an interview with Mira as well as director Todd Haynes who paid homage to Sirk’s Heaven and Fassbinder’s Ali in his breathtaking Far From Heaven, one of the most fascinating extras is a mere two minutes long.

A clip from Fassbinder’s 1970 black and white film The American Soldier, the pivotal extra features actress and fellow New German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta telling a story in character that would go onto inspire the melodramatic Ali.


While the fates of his characters deviate greatly between the two pictures, it shows writers what a difference just four years can make — particularly for someone with as voracious of an appetite for storytelling, art, and film as Fassbinder possessed.

Similar to the way that each new experience in art or life nourished his soul, he set out to do the same for his viewers by serving them a new variation of a Sirk staple the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.

And unlike the May/December relationships on display in the first rate American comedies The Graduate and Harold and Maude that played their material for laughs (while repeating that it’s better to be free than worried about you and me), Ali started where the thesis of those films stopped.

Employing greater extremes in everything from character to concept, he worked into his narrative questions of race, class, and gender which he presented while using an entirely different perspective and tone.

Daring to deviate from the modus operandi of the Me Decade, Fassbinder used a we mindset in Ali while asking us how free we (in fact) were to be you and me if culturally – instead of celebrating two together – we were being pushed apart and forced to choose between one or the other instead of the much more powerful and purposeful “we."

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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.

10/17/2014

Blu-ray Review: Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) — Diamond Edition


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Introduction:

Responsible for bringing to artistic life two of the most frightening Disney villains ever invented –while it’s impossible to choose whether Maleficent or Cruella deVil is the greater epitome of iconic Disney evil – it’s easy to see the influence of animator Marc Davis’s classic creations reflected throughout popular culture to this very day.

Whether it’s in Disney’s own Little Mermaid villainess Ursula or via live action and hand-drawn works alike from filmmakers around the globe, Davis’s impact can’t be understated. Arguing that very point for him based on their prominent inclusion in a memorable special feature, both of the artist’s fiercest villains are on display in a brand new Diamond Edition Blu-ray bonus that takes a look at Disney villains while conveniently up building anticipation for the upcoming home entertainment release of the studio’s Angelina Jolie starring live action feature Maleficent.

Likewise, it’s a tribute to Davis – and Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty by extension – that Maleficent not only set the pace for the summer movie season as one of only a precious few bona fide 2014 blockbusters (besides Disney sister-company Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) but will also kick off holiday gift-giving when it debuts next month following Beauty’s lead.


Although Disney enthusiasts might remember that the 2008 Platinum Edition of Beauty was one of the first combo pack format releases (alongside the first Tinker Bell spinoff) to bow on Blu-ray as part of the studio’s budget friendly multi-format sets that have since become industry standard, this Diamond Edition follow-up incorporates some superb brand new features from the House of Mouse’s legendary vault.

Of perhaps greatest interest are Disney's debut of rough sketches coupled with audio that help provide a glimpse of alternate takes and/or deleted scenes that were left out of the final cut that countless generations have come to know so well.

In stark contrast to the superfluous scenes we’re used to seeing in contemporary DVD features, Beauty’s newly unveiled footage helps answer lingering viewer questions including how and why Princess Aurora wandered in to prick her finger on Maleficent's spinning wheel in the first place.


Another scene adds crucial words to the otherwise mostly silent heroine whose name and looks essentially make up her entire personality, which is a far cry from this era of feisty, fiercely independent, chatty princesses depicted in the studio’s biggest blockbuster to date via last year’s phenomenal Frozen.

Boasting Disney’s ever popular karaoke feature along with the previously released classic featurettes mixed together with new material, we're taken behind-the-scenes of one of Disney's most acclaimed, landmark endeavors. And as such, it’s interesting in retrospect to go back and view Beauty with the company’s other fairy tales in mind.

For not only do you begin to better appreciate the ways that the film laid the cinematic groundwork for the titles that would follow but it’s also thrilling to evaluate the work structurally from a storytelling perspective.


When viewed as part of a double feature with The Little Mermaid in particular, you’ll see numerous examples of how this 1959 work impacted the one that would give birth to the so-called Disney Renaissance exactly three decades later via 1989’s Mermaid (which was documented in the intriguingly titled nonfiction effort Waking Sleeping Beauty).

From the reconfiguration of Maleficent to create Ursula to the way that the prince in both titles first falls for the women based on the sound of their melodic voices alone, Beauty’s role in creating the official paradigm future Disney classics would follow grows that much more evident with each new comparison and contrast.

Admittedly it’s a tough feature for feminists to champion as Aurora is even more silent than the mischievous mermaid turned voiceless Ariel who swam to two-legged life out from under the sea of her father’s staunchly male-centric kingdom as part of a Faustian bargain with Ursula. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny Aurora’s role in getting Disney to its Brave new world where old sexual stereotypes have begun to freeze over thanks to Frozen’s cry to “let it go.”


Loading up the combo pack with a bonus standard definition DVD as well as a digital copy, while understandably some fans might be stumped as to why – besides serving as a Maleficent marketing tie-in – the studio would choose to upgrade Beauty from Platinum to Diamond a mere six years later when so many classics are waiting in the wings, there’s enough here to warrant a second visit.

Of course, following the tragic death of Robin Williams, I can only hope that Aladdin will be the newest work to make its debut on Disney high definition Blu in the future.

Nonetheless Beauty’s reappearance helps remind us how much of a role the film has continued to play in our culture, from the live-action gender reversal While You Were Sleeping (made by another Disney sister company) to its offscreen role as part of the complex debate about the media’s obsession with a woman’s beauty vs. what or how much she’s allowed to say.



50th Anniversary Platinum Edition DVD Review:
(Edited for Context; Originally Published 10/05/08)

Ushering in the new era for Walt Disney Studios animation as the last feature with hand-inked cells, Sleeping Beauty became the first film to be both created and released exclusively for the 70mm format.

Now in 2008, nearly fifty years later, it makes history once again as “the first-ever Disney Classic animated feature in high definition.”

Awakening on shelves in a stunning digitally re-mastered 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition on October 7 (as always for a limited time) on both 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray formats, it has the tremendous and unprecedented distinction of offering fans without Blu-ray players the chance to purchase that format as it comes with a bonus standard edition playable DVD.

Tchaikovsky’s music and acclaimed, international operatic singing sensation Mary Costa (who voiced Princess Aurora) sound better than ever in Dolby Digital Surround that more than equals the crisp definition of the animation.



 Deliberately advised by Walt Disney himself to model the look of Beauty on medieval architecture and paintings, the film made the most of the brand-new 70mm format to craft “elaborate backgrounds” that took an average of seven to ten days to painstakingly ink by hand.

Legendary Disney artist and Sleeping Beauty production designer Eyvind Earle was given “a significant amount of freedom,” in granting Disney’s wish to present Beauty with an entirely “different visual style,” as opposed to the “soft, rounded look of earlier” features in the Disney collection. And in doing so, the visual scope of the film offered a more “detailed and complex” range of artwork than viewers had ever seen “used in an animated movie before.”

A mixture of the Brothers Grimm fable source material as well as Perrault’s version and Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty tells the story of the newborn Princess Aurora who is cursed at her christening by the wicked Maleficent (which translates to “evil-doer”).


Charged that she will die after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel when she turns sixteen, Aurora is quickly taken under the wing of three tiny good fairies—Flora (dressed in pink), Merryweather (blue), and Fauna (in green)—who whisk her away to live in the woods.

 Raising her in hiding and giving her the new name of Briar Rose, the young princess grows into a stunning blonde beauty (modeled after Audrey Hepburn), entirely unaware of her background.

After she falls in love with the handsome Prince Philip, her unknowingly betrothed husband-to-be since birth as they dance to “Once Upon a Dream” in the forest, Aurora/Briar Rose is cruelly tricked by the sinister magic employed by Maleficent and falls into a deep sleep, out of which only true love’s kiss can she awaken.


One of Disney’s most famous works, Beauty was the impressive product of a seven year intensive production. In fact, Disneyland Castle was even named for the one in the film which was released four years after the theme park opened its doors.

Yet, despite this, upon closer inspection Aurora is one of the dullest Disney princesses ever created. Raised in an era of feisty Disney heroines like Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan, as I watched from an adult’s perspective, I realized this time around that although Aurora is the titular character, the film is essentially more about the secondary cast. In fact, Beauty focuses the most on not only the fairies but Maleficent (who is never thoroughly explained), Prince Philip, and the families of the protagonist.


Upon further research, I discovered that, “second only to Dumbo (who didn’t speak at all)… [Aurora] has very few lines of actual dialogue throughout the entire film. Her first line comes 19 minutes into the film and her last line comes 39 minutes into the film.”

 Thus it may come as a slight shock to children of today used to far more fast-paced Disney offerings where the women have more to do than simply wait for a rescue and hope to avoid morning breath.


Despite the fact that Aurora is hands-down the most submissive and quietest character whose title-reflected beauty and helpless state propel the film along as a DVD, Beauty is an absolute knockout. 

The third film, following Snow White and Pinocchio to “undergo painstaking computer restoration,” both devotees and fans will be amazed by the presentation, which offers the film as it was originally meant to be seen with both enhanced picture and sound. 


Filled with endless featurettes and bonus footage taken right from the Disney Vault that’s sure to excite viewers of all ages, the Sleeping Beauty set includes an all new making-of documentary.

Plus, it takes you further inside the pre and post-production process, serving up an alternate opening, a DVD game for kids, four deleted songs, the original Oscar winning short that aired with the film in its theatrical release, a celebration of Tchaikovsky as well as the Disney artists, along with countless other snippets that have never before been seen.

Thus, the 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition is a veritable set that’s “once upon a dream” for lovers of all things Disney and the treasure trove has only been expanded upon in this Diamond Edition upgrade.

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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.

10/16/2014

Blu-ray Review: Hangmen Also Die (1943)


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AKA: Never Surrender; Lest We Forget; Hangmen Also Die! 

Even without any knowledge of the real-life complications, confrontations or compromises that comprised the offscreen push-and-pull power struggle of director Fritz Lang and his co-scripter Berlot Brecht on the 1942-43 production of their fact-based WWII passion project, viewers are able to sense clashes in tone, style, structure and character just by watching this – the final result.


Dubbed Hangmen Also Die by a quick-thinking secretary who garnered a hundred dollars and a place in motion picture history for her clever suggestion – as it turns out, even the question of what to call the work divided Lang and Brecht’s sole collaboration, ultimately resulting in the latter never making another hands-on picture in the United States.


Restored for Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray by Pinewood Studios and the British Film Institute (BFI), the legend of the Lang vs. Brecht title fight is in all reality just the tip of the iceberg of what amounts to an impressively made if disappointingly uneven tale of World War II suspense.

An anti-Nazi epic all the same and one given double the air of authenticity considering that it was crafted by German émigrés who’d fled Hitler’s stranglehold on their homeland during the time period, Fritz Lang had intended Hangmen to be another one of his efficiently executed, crisply-paced Noir thrillers.

With this in mind, the Austrian born director drew on both his personal and professional background as a German expressionist master craftsman who’d helped define the look of the Noir genre (in classics like Metropolis, M and Fury) along with the shadow heavy cinematography by legendary lensman James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success).


Unfortunately by swinging like a pendulum around a large number of characters on both sides of the Czechoslovakian Resistance’s assassination plot to take out Moravia “Hangman” and Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia Reinhard Heydrich, Hangmen Also Die loses the taut rhythm and breakneck pace that grabbed hold of us in the nail-biter of a beginning.

Gradually getting bogged down by endless speechmaking, instead of the terse, suspenseful thriller Lang had intended, ultimately we're left with an overly-long message movie that’s far too light on tension.

And unfortunately after such an ambitious first act, Hangmen loses its steely focus on a core group of Czechs who have to improvise after part of their plot collapses and leaves the assassin without a getaway car.


For what started as a cat-and-mouse espionage movie (wherein everyday citizens must ask themselves how much they’re willing to risk and/or sacrifice when threatened by the Gestapo) soon begins to veer off in too many directions.

And this misstep escalates – magnifying the film's flaws – thereby making the already lengthy 135 minute work (which adds in an extra minute of previously unreleased footage) feel as long as Brecht’s original 280 page draft.

Whittled down to 190 screen-minutes by three additional writers and translators (all with different styles and interests in where they wanted to story to go), when added together, Hangmen had at any given time as least five storytellers assigned to the same overcrowded, undeniably complicated personal project with each one on a completely different page.


Needless to say, you're left with a prime example of too many cooks in the kitchen without a head chef corralling all the ingredients into one recipe. And as such it’s easy to understand why the film collapsed under the weight of a structure that's constantly shifting like a foundation after each new earthquake-like rewrite by talented scripters (including Angels With Dirty Faces scribe John Wexley).

A nonetheless worthwhile find for Lang fans, especially given Cohen’s lush restoration, Hangmen also offers a decidedly unique look at a different part of the war by focusing on brave, unsung Czech heroes who were willing to lay down their lives if it meant they were able to put the Third Reich’s notorious hangman in a literal or figurative noose.

And this goal clearly helped the film strike a chord with western audiences in its 1943 release as U.S. and British viewers (many of whose loved ones were fighting overseas) were only too happy to stand up and cheer for the demise of Hitler’s regime, which had forced so many artists like Lang and Brecht to leave their ancestral home.



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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.

10/10/2014

Blu-ray Review: Chef (2014)



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Aside from Jon Favreau’s massive success as a studio director who crafted a contemporary Christmas classic with Elf and kickstarted Marvel’s moviemaking domination in the new millennium with Iron Man 1 and 2), he’s always strived to inject his own life into his work.

In fact, he took the age-old adage to write what you know to heart as far back as his groundbreaking script for Swingers, which put not only himself but his friend and former Rudy costar Vince Vaughn as well as future Bourne Identity director Doug Liman on the map.

Celebrating that success but staying true to his roots, while his follow-up feature filmmaking debut Made didn’t score as big of a hit as his first scripted effort, the allusions to his life as a rising artist with the goal of just getting a movie made and fighting to make it his own makes Made perhaps his most personal feature until now.


And as such, Made makes a perfect companion piece to this – his best picture in years – Chef.

On the surface it’s an enjoyable underdog story about a workaholic chef who – once on the cusp of a promising career – has lost some of the love for what it is that he does after years of cooking safe, easily palatable, and highly popular yet ultimately uninspired meals at his otherwise successful L.A. eatery which is run by Dustin Hoffman's micromanaging owner.

When Favreau’s Chef Carl Casper – known affectionately as El Jefe by his loyal staff – has a major meltdown after being unprofessionally eviscerated in an scathingly over-the-top review laden with personal attacks by the prominent food blogger who’d championed his talent ten years earlier, the confrontation between the two men goes viral.

Creatively, emotionally, and professionally at his lowest point after being unceremoniously fired, Carl eventually decides to write a new recipe for success. With his supportive ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) and loving son (Emjay Anthony) by his side, he travels to Miami where he'd originally experienced success a decade earlier.


Soon inspired by the food of the city that first ignited his passion for cooking Cuban cuisine in particular, Carl, his sous chef/best friend (John Leguizamo), and son Percy take the food truck supplied by Vergara’s other ex (Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr.) that’s as rundown on the outside as Carl feels on the inside and fix it up.

Nicknaming the new and improved restaurant on wheels El Jefe, the trio spend the summer traveling from one major gastronomic destination to the next while adding in the flavors of New Orleans and Texas as they gradually make their way back to Los Angeles.

Yet far more than just a culinary journey, Chef chronicles Carl’s own existential crisis and coming-of-middle-age as once he’s on the road, he begins to reevaluate his priorities to define success in a different way.


Realizing a bit too late he’s left his role as a father on the back burner as well as what the idea of “quality time” truly means as – instead of a rollercoaster ride or a trip to a blockbuster Hollywood film his son would much rather have a real live conversation with his dad – the work begins exploring the generation gap in a creative way.

With the young tech savvy Percy going from simply signing Carl up for Twitter to becoming El Jefe’s head of grassroots marketing via Vine and any number of apps the film incorporates, Favreau’s cinematic metaphor about how many hats an artist in any medium must both embrace and wear to make it in today’s society takes even greater shape.

For just like with the idea of getting his first film Made made, Favreau’s latest opus operates as a timely allegory for the industry in which he’s worked for more than two decades.


And as a far cry from play-it-safe tentpole franchise films that try to distract us as near rollercoaster rides into forgetting how great it feels to be genuinely moved by a picture about people we can relate to just having an authentic conversation, Chef lays out this argument in a variety of ways.

Obviously the writer/director address this directly in its screenplay in the scenes between father and son after Carl walks away from the restaurant industry (read: big blockbuster moviemaking) due to pressure from his own version of a studio head in Hoffman.

However, Favreau also acknowledges it indirectly on a meta-level as a talky indie film itself that is just the representation of and antidote to the type of movies his onscreen child is tired of in favor of good old conversation.

And in doing so, the offscreen chef (Favreau) gets reinvigorated by the own medium he loved in the late ‘90s (via Swingers and Made) similar to the way that Carl does by returning to his roots in Miami.


Thus in addition to his audience and his onscreen son, Favreau undoubtedly shares the same appetite for relatable filmmaking on a more personal level, not only returning to the same independent model of filmmaking in which he got his start but also by inviting along nearly a dozen likeminded marquee names he’s since befriended and/or worked with along the way to join him as well.

Bringing their own talent and hunger to the table, the diverse dream cast (boasting a standout performance by the young Emjay Anthony who holds his own with everyone) managed to make a film that says as much about the food industry as it does about the current state of music, literature, and film.


For example, in a brilliantly penned line, Hoffman berates the chef to play (or cook) his hits like Mick Jagger must do at damn near every Rolling Stones show before the filmmaker manages to insert some clever questions and subtle comments about criticism, marketing, self-made media, and the thin line of all three in between.

At one painful food truck gathering early on, we watch a pushy policeman treat the chef like a trained seal – turning into a groupie by forcing Favreau’s chef to pose for multiple selfies, which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve seen occur in person at too many press junkets where clueless “reporters” follow the movie cop's lead.

Particularly inventive is the way that Favreau addresses the good and bad of the social media infotainment age where the twenty-four hour news cycle requires more and more outrageous morsels of interchangeable content for sugar-high ratings spikes or empty calorie click-bait without stopping to ask if the subject is even or should be “news” before they begin.


An entertaining, heartfelt ensemble movie with an awful lot to say, Chef is engaging enough as it is to stand on its own. However, like an expensive, decadent multicourse meal that you just might want to savor, the more you think about the implications of what’s really being said beyond the frame, the more you’ll realize that he made something much more resonant that a mere foodie film.

Wisely understanding that Tinsletown spoofs seldom play as well to those outside the industry, Favreau’s skewered take on franchise filmmaking where the product is packaged like fast food works on a multitude of levels whichever way you watch it.

The director’s best feature since Elf and his strongest piece of screenwriting since Swingers, Chef is certain to satisfy as a word-of-mouth hit that plays even better as the main course to the appetizer of Made and when you go back for more and look at it the second time around.


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