4/19/2018

Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare Wallah (1965)


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Although initially intended to serve as a metaphor for the disappearance of western (or more specifically) British culture from India in the mid twentieth century, 1965's understated Merchant Ivory offering Shakespeare Wallah has become even more thematically significant today on a global scale, considering the rate at which the arts are vanishing more than fifty years later in the twenty-first.


Of course, that's not to say that the work itself is overly heavy. Created at the intersection of fact and fiction, this lush yet free flowing collision of art and life was born when the diaries of traveling theatre troupe head Geoffrey Kendal provided James Ivory with the authentic perspective that he and co-writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala needed to get Ivory's idea for an story about Shakespearean actors in India off and running.

The second Merchant Ivory production after The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah was also the second of nine works to star their Householder lead, popular Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. In an against-type role as one third of the film's love triangle Kapoor's local Indian man Sanju finds himself caught between the guileless and naturally gifted, Indian born British stage actress Lizzie Buckingham (played by Kapoor's real life sister-in-law Felicity Kendal) and Madhur Jaffrey's glamorous, vain, and self-involved rising Bollywood star, Manjula.


A crowd favorite, for her turn Jaffrey garnered a well-deserved Best Actress award from the Berlin Film Festival. And further foreshadowing Merchant Ivory's future strength in attracting marvelous talent, as the daughter of director James Ivory's offscreen turned onscreen source Geoffrey Kendal (who stars in the picture alongside his wife, daughters, and son-in-law), Felicity Kendal does a marvelous job serving as the production's Shakespearean muse.

While unfortunately her parents were unhappy with the metaphorical direction the film took because it was in stark contrast to their experiences traveling through India in the late 1940s, teenage actress Felicity Kendal was better able to differentiate between the offscreen reality of their memories and the onscreen drama of the film, given her largely secondhand knowledge of the events that had occurred nearly twenty years earlier.


Keeping things light and playful as much with a look as she does with the film's subtle – at times perfunctory – dialogue, which builds in waves for the moments it reaches a dramatic fever pitch, Kendal gives a performance that's doubly impressive when you consider both her status as a newcomer as well as someone juggling such complex family loyalty dynamics on both sides of the lens.

Given a budget low enough to necessitate that the film be shot in black-and-white, Wallah wound up benefiting from what most would consider a financial misfortune. Not only did the lack of funds inspire additional creativity but it also ensured that the behind-the-scenes movie magic used to generate some of the film’s most sumptuous sequences (such as the bright yellow smoke bombs needed to produce scenic romantic mist) would stay marvelously hidden from view.


Paying off beautifully, in this exquisite 2k digital restoration of Wallah made from the George Eastman Museum archive’s 35mm composite fine grain master, our senses are dazzled from start to finish. And while I’m obviously glad that the yellow smoke was kept out of sight, as a movie geek nearly blind from years of subtitle/closed captioning overload, I do wish some of the yellow color had stuck around to be used in place Wallah's small white font. All too frequently the words vanish into the white background similar to the way that theater audiences vanished from the Buckingham's performances in favor of Bollywood movies throughout the course of the film.

Nonetheless, from its instantly charming opening credit sequence to Satyajit Ray's affecting score, the film – which amazingly failed to find an American distributor in its initial release – went on to set the stage for the dozens of Merchant Ivory productions that would follow. And devotees of their movies are sure to appreciate the fact this new high definition restoration has arrived on disc just after James Ivory took home his first screenwriting Oscar for Call Me By Your Name after a lifetime of marvelous work.


Offering arthouse fans much in which to delight, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray includes two informative essays as well as a handful of special features salvaged from the title's earlier Criterion Collection release, which gives you the opportunity to hear the filmmakers breakdown their work in every stage.

Unlike other Shakespearean referential titles (including the lovely '98 Oscar winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love as well as any number of terrific adaptations), Shakespeare Wallah does much more than romantically celebrate Bard. Thanks to the film's stellar cast and crew as well as its use of art and cultural metaphor in building its own narrative through-line steeped in authenticity, Merchant Ivory's Wallah has grown that much more topical with each passing year.


Text ©2018, 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 or screener link 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.

4/09/2018

Blu-ray Review: Braven (2018)

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Produced by and starring the charismatic Jason Momoa in a tailor made role that plays directly to his strengths, this solid, above average direct-to-disc and digital B-movie variation of Cliffhanger marks the feature filmmaking debut of veteran stuntman and coordinator turned TV helmer, Lin Oeding.

Opening with some stunning wintry shots of the pacific northwest care of cinematographer and co-producer Brian Andrew Mendoza, it isn't too long before Braven's color palette changes from snow white to blood red when the family cabin of Momoa's titular logger Joe Braven is descended upon by heroin smugglers, led by the loose cannon Kassen (well played by Justified and Raising Hope actor Garret Dillahunt).


Making the most of what he has with which to work, Oeding and his stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo execute some truly inventive and – in at least one instance involving a bear trap – entertainingly convoluted fight sequences as Joe and his mentally declining yet still badass father, Linden (Don't Breathe's Stephen Lang) try to outwit and out man Dillahunt's band of hired guns.

Straining incredulity at times – albeit right in line with the genre – one way that Braven sets itself apart is by giving us an under-utilized yet nonetheless refreshing female heroine in the form of Stephanie (Teen Wolf star Jill Wagner), Joe’s bow-and-arrow wielding wife who is so tough that although she initially heads up to the cabin to retrieve her young daughter and backup Joe, by the time the police reach the shootout, they actually follow her lead through the snowy woods.


Okay, okay, so while the rational side of me gets that it was a tiny logistical error to place the armed authorities behind a woman and child, it’s still a fun little girl power flavored gaffe all the same.

A predictable yet impressively well made actioner ideally suited for a Saturday evening double feature, Braven gets around the shortcomings of its familiar storyline thanks to a talented cast and exceptional crew, led by Momoa and Oeding.

Bolstered by its demo reel worthy professional polish and creative action choreography, although Braven doesn't break the mold of similar late ‘80s/early ‘90s fare, for its roughly ninety minute running time\ it holds our interest with the same ease that Momoa holds an axe.


Text ©2018, 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.

3/31/2018

Film Movement Movie Review: In Between (2016)



Available to Own on May 1 


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AKA: Bar Bahar

"Once you express your worldview and your manifest, there's no turning back. Either do something real or don't do it at all. At least that is the way I see things," writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud explains in an interview quoted in Film Movement's press notes for her passionate first full-length feature In Between.

Nominated for a dozen Israeli Oscars (and garnering two wins for her female-centric cast), it's safe to say that much like she believes her "heroines bring their dreams to the screen," she's doing the exact same thing as a filmmaker.

Eager "to bring more Palestinian female representations" to cinema's emerging Arab New Wave, Hamoud’s award-winning breakout festival hit In Between is the epitome of her desire to tell stories in which "a woman is staged in the center and not just behind the male characters."

Revolving around not one but three very different Palestinian women who come to share an apartment in the Yemeni Quarter neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the aptly named In Between illustrates their struggles to reconcile their personal, cultural, and religious beliefs in a city they mostly feel at home in at night while exploring the underground club scene.


Of course, that would be all except for the devout, younger Muslim university student Nour (an excellent Shaden Kanboura) who arrives out of the blue shortly into the film, having been invited to stay by Nour’s cousin – a former, unseen resident, whom we gather never shared those plans with her roommates.

Fortunately not the types to leave a woman in a lurch, while her dorm is being renovated Nour is given what we deduce is her cousin's old room to complete her computer science degree in peace, which is a welcome respite from an otherwise two hour commute from Jaffa.

Though hesitant at first, over the course of the film, Nour (and the audience) grows closer to her free-spirited new friends, Laila (played by scene-stealer Mouna Hawa) and Salma (the delightful Sana Jammelieh).

A criminal defense attorney by day turned queen of the club scene by night, Laila and Salma – a communist bartender and DJ who hides the fact that she’s a lesbian from her Christian family – soon become surrogate big sisters to the less worldly Nour. And nowhere is this relationship more evident than in a heartbreaking yet beautifully moving sequence when they try to help Nour on a night when things go very wrong.

Filmed in an intimate, small space while pulling back enough to offer the women privacy as if we're in the apartment as well, in this scene, Hamoud avoids the rookie mistake of telling us what we're seeing – wise enough to know that when it comes to raw emotion, actions speak so much louder than words.


Drawn to their strength and resolve to the point that we find ourselves wanting to know more about not only the enigmatic main characters but their fascinating friends as well, all in all, it’s a fast moving, powerful, feminist work about life as a modern Muslim or Christian Palestinian woman in a world that may not be ready for them. And sadly, this idea was carried offscreen as In Between earned its brave writer/director a Fatwa.

Obviously this isn't helped by the fact that some critics have foolishly dubbed the film Palestine's Sex and the City, more for the character setup (and in order to score easily accessible pop cultural clickbait points) than anything else. And while admittedly on paper, the character combination of the wild friend, the militant rebel, and the more modest one has been used repeatedly throughout film and television history, Maysaloun Hamoud is up to the creative challenge.

Managing to leave the archetypes behind, Hamoud crafts three largely believable, three-dimensional heroines within the universally relatable context of friendship and sisterhood in what the filmmaker told Vogue (in a fascinating, though spoiler heavy interview) is the first picture of a planned trilogy.

Putting women at the heart of the story in such a powerful way, now that she's shared her worldview with a film and characters that are very real and uniquely her own – just like she's said – there's no turning back.


Text ©2018, 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 or screening link 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.

3/29/2018

Book Review: Little Big Love by Katy Regan (2018) -- aka Little Big Man

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The first American release for British author Katy Regan, Little Big Love is a heartfelt story of family secrets and lies that are slowly revealed over the course of roughly 360 pages.

Set in Grimsby, England and narrated by three different characters with distinct points-of-view (each of whom also represent a different generation of the Hutchinson family), events are set into motion when ten-year-old Zac and his best friend Teagan decide to look for the father whom Zac believes abandoned him and his mother Juliet before birth.

More than just a writerly gimmick, the trio of narrators works quite well in Little Big Love, even if occasionally the plot lags a bit with some adorable filler care of young, inquisitive Zac. Likewise, and disappointingly for the book's only female narrator, Juliet's character in particular grates slightly on the nerves – swinging like a pendulum from extreme self-loathing and immaturity to downright mother of the year material.

In spite of its struggles however, overall the author's heart is in the right place and we're right there with her as Zac's mission begins to yield surprising results – impacting the lives of multiple characters throughout. And this is particularly evident in the case of Zac’s grandfather Mick, whose chapters are among the novel’s strongest as he leads us further back in time in order to bring two absent figures to life.

A terrific reminder of just how much emotional mystery exists within our family trees, I found myself rapidly turning pages as more hidden truths came to light before Little Big Love eventually reached its tender, lovely, twist-filled resolution.

Releasing first on April 19 in the U.K. as Little Big Man – in reference to the author's son and Little muse – before arriving stateside in mid-June just in time for summer, it makes an ideal read for those who loved fellow tissues necessary (but not included) titles Dear Frankie and/or About a Boy.

Needless to say, whether Little, Big, or even about Love at all, I’m looking forward to reading whatever it is that Katy Regan delivers next.


Text ©2018, 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: I received a galley review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers from First To Read, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

3/21/2018

Blu-ray Review: Daughter of the Nile (1987)



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Following a trio of films inspired by the memories of Taiwanese New Wave director Hou Hsiao-hsien and his collaborators (which perhaps best be described as a thematic trilogy about living with the rule of martial law under the Kuomintang government), 1987's Daughter of the Nile found Hou embracing the creative bounty of present day Taipei as a city stuck in both the past and present.


Widely considered a transitional work in that it moved the filmmaker into the modern era and also flirted with the crime genre which was so popular in the youth culture representative of his main characters, Daughter nonetheless still found its narrative arc in memory. Finding inspiration in the experiences of its screenwriter Chu T'ien-wen, a novelist who frequently wrote for Hou Hsiao-hsien, the film is rich in authenticity.

Still unafraid to dive into pop culture, Daughter of the Nile took its name from a character in the Japanese manga series Crest of the Royal Family, which was a favorite of the film's leading lady, pop singer turned actress Yang Lin. Chronicling the adventures of a young woman thrust into a very different time and place, the film derives obvious - if largely metaphorical and thematic – inspiration with the titular manga.


Although he hoped to find the commercial and critical acclaim missing from his previous pictures, which were diminished as simply style over substance, Hou was initially disappointed by Daughter of the Nile. Yet while he dismissed as something made more for introducing musician Yang Lin to cinema than anything else, the film's importance as an early Taiwanese New Wave masterwork and a precursor to his future epics has grown significantly over the years.

More than thirty years since its screen debut, it's been given a lush 4K restoration on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Cohen Media Group's Contemporary Classics series. This existential tale about a hardworking young woman struggling to hold her increasingly-at-odds family together uses all of the tools at Hou's disposal to drive home not only the plot strands about our heroine's crush on her gangster brother's friend but also its themes of cultural ennui.


Although Yang Lin's character does her best to break free, patch up, and save the men in her family who are on opposite sides of the law from start to finish, in Daughter of the Nile she's given little control over the film's foreshadowed tragedies.

Seemingly out of place in her surroundings even when she's in the rooms of her home, which we're often shown shot largely as disparate locations rather than one distinct setting, Hou Hsiao-hsien frequently lets the cinematography tell the story.


Much like the heroine in Andrea Arnold's 2009 film Fish Tank, Yang Lin's Daughter is symbolically likened to the fish in the tank we sometimes see just off to the side of the frame, who also appear to be doing their best to listen in on the comings and goings of family members.

Pulling the lens so far back that it feels as though we are eavesdropping right along with our lead throughout, Daughter of the Nile also makes creative use of music with songs ranging from "Big Spender" to "Walk Like an Egyptian" that help to color in the lines of its enigmatic characters while also pointing out the increasing Westernization and cultural confusion of Taipei.


And while it's easy to attribute the emphasis on music to its pop singer star Yang Lin (whose off screen music appears on the soundtrack), before he turned to Daughter, Hou had been planning to make a film about the Chinese opera, so it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see how his research may have inspired the dominant role of music as libretto.

Best appreciated on the biggest screen you can find and with the aid of a powerful sound system, this gorgeous Blu-ray release from Cohen gives us the very best version of the feature that we have seen so far. Boasting feature length commentary from film scholar and historian Richard Suchenski, Daughter of the Nile also offers viewers a fascinating forty-two minute interview with noted Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns.


And while the contemplative, novelistic work offers a terrific introduction to the Taiwanese New Wave along with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (and additionally makes a thrilling double feature with the Criterion Collection release of Hou colleague Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day), it also makes us wish that more pictures from this era will be given the TLC Blu-ray treatment soon.


Text ©2018, 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.

3/15/2018

Film Movement Movie Review: Oh Lucy! (2017)

Executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's Gloria Sanchez Productions – the female-centric sister company to Gary Sanchez Productions – this quirky character driven dramedy centered on a bored middle-aged Japanese woman's impulsive journey to California makes for a downright intriguing double feature with Matt Spicer's fellow 2017 directorial debut Ingrid Goes West.

Comprised of people and places writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi knows very well, Oh Lucy! is based upon the filmmaker's multiple award-winning 2014 short film by the same name, which served as her MFA thesis at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.


And while there's a lot to like about the creatively ambitious director's wholly original take on the globetrotting road movie, unfortunately (and again similarly to Ingrid) her tonally uneven first feature starts to run out of gas before we've reached the final act.

Released by Film Movement following its successful run at fests around the globe (including screening as part of International Critics Week at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival), Oh Lucy! is bolstered by Shinobu Terajima's Independent Spirit Award nominated performance as a stuck-in-a-rut office worker inspired to start over by her charismatic English teacher, played by the always affable Josh Hartnett.


Likewise, in a welcome return to the screen, Hartnett fires on all emotional cylinders in an unusual and fascinating turn – serving as the tour guide to American culture for the film's leads as they journey after a runaway relative.

Focusing more on situational humor than audible laughs, Lucy revolves around the role past hurts and betrayals play on the film's familial triangle of lost female souls trying to move forward and find themselves.

As the characters inevitably combust, Lucy heads into darker territory despite the filmmaker's attempt to lessen the impact of the cruel third act twists by (disappointingly) using the film's men as the predominant voices of sanity.

Without offering the viewer more information about our leading lady – which is sorely needed to better understand what seems like a one-note response – Hirayanagi's Lucy moves backwards instead of forwards right along with our often antagonistic protagonist.


Seemingly trying to lighten things up a la genre-similar works such as Stranger Than Paradise and Sideways before it reaches its darkly comic yet foreshadowed ending, Oh Lucy! fails to fully pay off on its unique premise and dynamite second act.

Still in spite of its flaws, the picture remains an uncompromising, thoughtful, and impressively fresh cinematic calling card for its imaginative storyteller, which makes me eager to see what Atsuko Hirayanagi will bring to the screen next.


Text ©2018, 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 or screener link 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.