Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pondering CITIZENFOUR (2014)

I technically missed CITIZENFOUR at the New York Film Festival. The film premiered on the last Friday of the Festival but I was too beat to see it so I saw it early in the morning two days later, at a press screening on what was technically the last day of the festival. The screening, 930 on a Sunday morning was lightly attended, The reaction when the film ended was silence, which is typical for a press screening (you know you've got a hot film if there is applause).  As I was talking to the PR rep in the lobby the other critics coming out described the film as interesting.

I'm mentioning the reaction to the film for a reason. If you were following the media reaction to the film on Twitter or elsewhere after the first New York Film Festival screening you would have thought the film was the second coming of Edward Snowden with talk of people being moved and an extended standing ovation.

For those who don't know the film is the story of how Edward Snowden contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras and began the release of material through her and her friend Glenn Greewald. We see the exchange of emails that lead to the meeting with Snowden in Hong Hong and we watch as he is forced to flee to Moscow. There is also a great deal of discussion about what exactly the government and other governments are doing in collecting data.

My reaction to the film is that it would be a great hour long documentary if it wasn't stretched to two hours.There is no way around it the film is too long and ultimately too unfocused to hold your attention.  Part of the problem is that while the film is nominally Snowden's story the film branches off into other directions.We follow some of the ripples the Snowden material caused. We watch as the Guardian tries to handle how to release some of the information and we watch as Brazil gets annoyed at US spying. There is also a random sequence of a speech given by the Security Head of Occupy Wall Street about how linking everything together allows the government to track us. The material is in theory on point but is just throw together instead of being linked together.

Its interesting stuff and each bit should be a film of it's own, The trouble is here its tiny bits of material that kind of comes and goes and isn't all that well formed as anything other than cinematic declarative statements or headlines. There is no meat beyond the bit.

The real problem is that the focus of the film, or what we've been told is the focus, Edward Snowden is only in the film for a certain amount of time. We only really see him sitting in a hotel room talking about code keys, what the US government is going to track him, and a little bit about the revelations. We don't really get any sense of the man as a person or even why he did what he did beyond feeling obligated. There is no sense of the man or his life. Worse after a certain point he disappears as he goes to Russia after which we get a brief glimpse of him at the very end talking Greenwald in a hotel room in Moscow. (Aslight digression, I'm amused that exchange we see is done via handwritten notes which see part of before they are then destroyed, however they hold them up to each other, and the light, so we can see the writing through the paper )

Its kind of interesting, but for me it kind of felt like they only had so much material, despite being with Snowden for many days, and had to stretch it out. I understand that the Snowden didn't want to talk about his family and such at the time, but now much of that is public record, why not include it?

The filmmakers solution to filling time is to repeat things. Points are gone over again and again.I got bored, especially at how much material is repeated as points are beaten home. I mean do we really need the full  take of Greenwald's Brazilian testimony since it repeats everything we've seen?

The real problem with the film is that there is nothing new here other than the revelations at the end of a watch list and new leaker. Everything else in this film is stuff that you know if you've been watching the news since Snowden appeared. Even the story of Snowden's travels have been so documented that there is no tension. 

What amazes me is that the revelation of the US government tapping phone lines and collecting data is really considered shocking since its well known that they were doing it going back for decades. There were even news stories about the government getting scared because when cellphones were becoming popular they had to find ways to continue their surveillance which they couldn't do, at the time, if it wasn't on a landline. Even the trunk line to Europe was supposed to have been tapped. Everyone applauds Snowden for the release, rightly so, but this shit has been going on for decades but most people were never curious enough to see. 

I've gotten into several arguments/discussions about the film and it's importance. People are telling me that the film is important for any number of reasons, largely having to do with the revelations it brings together. But I can't really agree. 

For me the film isn't important because it has too much stuff that doesn't belong. There isn't much beyond the basic revelation, which I'm guessing everyone knows going in.The film has too much other material in it that just distracts from all of the central points. We don't need much of the other non-Snowden material. And the film suffers from not saying much beyond the government is tapping and recording everything. 



In other documentaries, such as several of the HBO documentaries on what is going on in Russia, say on Pussy Riot or the hunting of homosexuals,we see something beyond the one person telling us about what is going on. We actually see something beyond the statement.

Okay yes this is a film about Snowden  and his release of documents, but the film starts throws the net wider, to Brazil, to the Hague, to Occupy Wall Street, but it doesn't show us why they should be in this film. Why are we everywhere but with Snowden?

Actually why don't we really get to know him? I mean the  most we get about him in person, is his worrying about his girlfriend, and watching him shave and style his hair. Is he that bland or is he something else?

What bother me most about any positive reaction to it, is that those cheering it on will be happy that some one is revealing how their rights are being chipped away at, however very few of them will do more than cheer. They will get angry and talk to their friends, but they will go home and do nothing. They will not take up the mantle of Snowden and actually do anything. If this were truly a great film, it would move people to do something, instead of letting other people make the sacrifice for their liberty. 

This film doesn't go far enough.

Is CITIZENFOUR a bad film? No but it is, as I think it will be seen once some time passes, to be an unremarkable one.

Take a Hard Ride (1975)

Take a Hard Ride had me when I saw that it starred Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Lee Van Cleef. What thrilled me even more was the discovery that the film was jock full of great character actors including Jim Kelly as a half breed native American martial arts master.

Yea the film is a great deal of fun.

The plot of the film has ex-con brown agreeing to take the payroll to the ranch of his dying boss. It’s a long trip and 86,000 dollars back at the end of the 19th century is a lot of money. Instantly everyone is out to bushwhack brown, and Van Cleef wants him for the bounty on his head. Needing help Brown ends up tied to fred Williamson, a gambler who wants the money but will only promise to remain loyal until Mexico. As bad guys give chase the good guys battle each other as well.

Looking like an American western despite being very much a spaghetti western- the film was shot in Spain and has the signs of post production audio work. There is a maturity and a dark edge that is  unexpected in "American" Westerns (I'd love to tell you about a couple of twists but I don't want to ruin them), the good guys are a lighter shade of grey than the bad guys and even so some of the bad guys are rather black.

The film works for two reasons. First the action is amazing. The shoot outs are spectacular. As I implied earlier things don't go the way one expects, people die unexpectedly and how things play out is rarely what would come to mind.

The second reason is the great cast of characters. Jim Brown's lead is the moral center and because he's such a straight arrow it allows the film to be grounded so that we accept his battles with gambler Williamson, or some of the strange characters that are in orbit around him, such as Jim Kelly's mute half breed kung fu expert. No it makes no sense but it is a great deal of fun.

I really liked this film a great deal. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

1000 Times Goodnight (2014)

Juliette Binoche plays a war photographer who is injured while covering a female suicide bomber group and ends up too near an explosion when the bomber denoates. Brought back home after time in the hospital her family life collides with her work life as she is forced to choose between her children and husband and the life she knows.

This haunting film grabs you from it's opening moments as we watch as Binoche photographs a group of female bombers preparing one of their own for an attack, Its a filmed in a manner that makes what she is photgrpahing a kind of mystery and it  pulls you in to its embrace almost from the first frame. The result is a film that will get in side your head and your heart and stay with you.

Watching the film for review late at night I found myself realizing almost instantly that I was not really in the head space to deal with the film. My defenses were down I knew that if I continued on the film was going to haunt me. Drawn in by the beauty of the images, the subject matter and the killer performances I stayed all the way to the end. That night I dreamed of the film all night waking up several times as I found that my dreams were not my own but a replay of the film. Over the next several days I could feel the film hanging around the edges of my psyche even as I watched other films and went through the dull grind of my life

While the plot of one woman forced to choose work over family is explored on an amped up and very dangerous level, this is also a story that will force you to reflect on whether your job is devouring your own home life and whether or not you need to change your life..

I'm not too sure what to say about the film except that it will move you and affect you. I am very much of the opinion that a good film is one that provokes a reaction and a great one is one that provokes a strong one and under that criteria this is a great film. See it and be haunted.

New Gulliver (1935)

Early film from legendary Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko is a blast and a half. To be honest I have no idea how the film is as a film, but as eye candy this film is way cool.

The plot of the film has a bunch of student campers setting sail in a large boat they restored as their yacht. They land on an island and while resting one of them begins to read Gulliver’s Travels. As the story is read one of the kids imagines himself in the story, fighting pirates and then in Lilliput and elsewhere.

The film is an amusing romp. Its very much a kids own sort of adventure with the story playing out as a kid would imagine it, the early pirate sequence is wonderfully silly. Yes the film turns political. There is talk of the man mountain being evil and there is talk of a workers revolt, but it's more a distraction

The real joy however is the huge scale animation that blends the human actors with some marvelous models. I love the great characters of Lilliput. How the hell did they do this on such a huge scale. I’ve never seen animation done this level before. The fore ground is animated, the background is animated, real life and what appear to be toys are mixed with the animation models. I have no idea how they did it.

It’s amazing on a level I can’t describe. I mean how much work did they put into this? How long did it take to do it? Wow doesn’t do it justice.

If you want to see true movie magic you must see this film. Seriously it will blow you away.

Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

Ph.d Student  pays an Alzheimer's patient and her daughter money to allow them to film them for several months. Almost instantly it becomes clear that something is wrong beyond the diagnosis, and that her trouble might be something more demonic.

Found footage horror film is very hit and miss, even by the standards of the sub-genre of horror. There are some genuine chills in the film but it's undone by some technical issues and some decidedly fiction film camera work.

The chills in the film come in from two things. The physical performance of Jill Larson as Logan and the small  "caught on camera moments" lift the film up from the the middle of the pile it dwells in.

Larson as Logan is amazing. The moments where she goes demonic is truly frightening. She chills with just a look. The performance is made stronger by the makeup and lighting to use to deepen the horrific. Its her performance that makes the film come alive especially in the final half hour where the movie goes completely batshit crazy.

And its the small moments that send the chills. The odd look, a weird thing that can't be explained, say Logan wandering into closet and disappearing, or perfectly framed image on a computer screen say more than most of the dialog scenes. The devil is in the details , or in this case the demon is the odd shot with several images, being some of the most messed up horror images I'm run across all year.

The biggest flaw of the film is the fact the film wants to be found footage but ultimately isn't. Cameras are placed in places they never would be-I mean multiple surveillance cameras in a hospital room? Things are filmed that never would be, no documentary filmmaker would wander around the way these people do and more importantly who would let them film much of what they do? It doesn't make sense.

This would have been soooooo much better as a straight on fiction film since there is  is no reason for it to be found footage. The story doesn't call for it, the budget doesn't require it and the scenes as written don't play out as found footage.

I'm disappointed greatly in the film because when the film works, and it does now and again it's creepy as all hell, with one WTF moment near the end of the film that had me murmuring to myself.

Opening today on early EST and it hits DVD on November 4

Monday, October 20, 2014

Force Majeure (2014)

Award winner at Cannes was shown at Toronto as part of a special screening. I think it's a very good film

The film has a couple and their kids going on a ski holiday. Its one of their rare times together so the family is really excited. Things however get mess real fast. Sitting outside at a restaurant having lunch the second day they witness a controlled avalanche that almost crashes into the resort. The kids freak out. The mother tries to protect them and the father flees. This sends ripples through the clan and their friends as it soon has everyone thinking and dealing with what "happened"

This drama is decidedly less dark then you's expect. Yes, there is darkness kicked up, yes weighty issues are raised but there is abundant humor as arguments take surreal turns or kids toys come crashing in to break the mood.  Despite weaving a great deal of tension at times, the silliness of life is always there.

I really like this film a lot. It's decidedly not run of the mill and the right side of quirky. Its a film full of great characters and funny lines-and some truly amazing visuals- this is an absolute must see on a big screen where you can take it all in and the ending can be seen to be really freaky.

On the downside the film does kick up a few too many threads that go nowhere-the discussion about affairs seems to be from another film, and the film kind of ends twice, once in a cliched sort of way and the final one in a WTF was that sort of way. On the  upside any down side doesn't matter since the characters and the sense of life make up for it.

Definitely worth the time of anyone who doesn't want to see the same old same old.

The film opens Friday

300 Rise of the Empire (2014)

Not so much a sequel as the story of events before, during and after the events depicted in 300. We see how the Persians moved to war and then were ultimately beaten back the the Greeks.

Focused on Greek General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) and Artemisia (Eva Green) the film follows as the  pair circle and crash into and around each other as they try to maneuver their sides in the escalating series of sea battles.

Let me great a couple of things out of the way:

First this film is historically inaccurate. For example Aretmisia fought but she wasn't a great admiral, she had five ships under her.  There are other things that didn't happen as well, but I can't discuss them without revealing plot points. While I know this is a historical story, they changes keep it compelling.

Second thing this is a really good movie. To my mind it's much better than 300. Yes its done in the same way with everything rendered via a computer, but the film is more concerned with the story then just the visuals. There is a lot of story here and ir carries you along.

If there is a problem with the film, beyond the over abundance of slow motion blood and body parts is that there is almost too much story. If you add into all of the flash backs this film covers decades, its almost too much. There is so much story that it's almost diametrically opposed to the first film.

Watching the film I had a blast and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves action and doesn't mind the blood

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nightcap 10/19/14: Final thoughts on the New York Film Festival, DOC NYC is coming and Randi's links

The New York Film Festival ended last weekend and I’m still tired.

I had a blast. It was month of good films and good friends.

For those keeping score the best new films I saw were

The almost on the best list and would be if I didn’t hesitate for a second list

And somewhere in there should probably be THE KING AND THE MOCKINGBIRD on the technicality that it hadn’t officially been released in the US before

The worst films are

My one wish coming out of the festival this year is that next year the selection committee can make some of the selections more exciting going in. Yea the films were largely very good to excellent this year, but what I’d like is more premieres, more big or important films closer to their world premieres. Too many films had played in multiple festivals elsewhere before landing in New York- that’s all well and good, but it kind of kills the excitement when people are telling me how they saw a film at this other festival or another (even the Surprise screening screened elsewhere-with the result that the audience deflated when they realized what it was).

Additionally the festival has to stop taking films from past directors. Just because they had a film previously doesn’t mean they deserve a slot this year. At least a quarter of the main slate films were returning directors, as were a high percentage of other films. There are more and better films out there then some of the films that were made by NYFF alumni. Being a past presenter shouldn't give you an automatic slot. Make a good film then you can be screened.

Forgive me for bitching but this is the New York Film Festival, one of the premiere events for a half century, they need to be more of a stepping off point for world cinema not "the best of the rest" collection it's become.

And while I’m making a wish list the selection would get more daring- I mean really daring. No offense but outside of Asia Argento’s MISUNDERSTOOD the festival wasn’t daring. Every choice was safe and not confrontational. The Festival should be rattling cages, it should be going into going in new directions and picking up new directors. Why can’t the festival do another midnight series-yea I know it’s a union thing, but do a midnight series in the afternoon. The answer that the Film Society does things like Film Comment Selects and Scary Movies at other times doesn’t cut it, those are series are self-selecting- the festival casts a wider net and showing some of those films would get them greater attention.

If you want my unasked for advice on how to correct this change out the selection committee. Some of the people seem to have been there forever, time to get new eyes and uncalcify the group. If not expand the group to include a rotating cast of characters who will bring new eyes. And if you do that don’t go to the same old same old- get some of younger film writers and bring them in, get people not in the old boys secret handshake film club and let them choose- and have them do so from their hearts and not their heads- let them pick what moves them, not what is going to look good for the festival.

As for me time to go through withdrawal and rest up for next year….

If you want proof that film critics and writer can be full of themselves watch the BIRDMAN Q&A above and listen as the panel is stumped by several questions which are either not about the film or make no sense.

And heading on to other festivals, DOC NYC has announced its schedule and put tickets on sale. It’s a killer festival and we’re going to wade in as best we can . Not only am I doing coverage but also John, Hubert and Mondo are wading in….

…but that may not be enough since they are running 152 films across multiple screens in 3 locations. I think on the weekend 6 films will be running at the same time. It’s insane.

I know we’ll have reviews of a good number of the films, but I can’t say how many, but way over 30.. I know I freaked the PR staff out with my personal requests. If we don’t beat last year’s coverage it won’t be because we didn’t try, it will only because the scheduling defeated us.

For details on all the films including tickets go here.

(And yea the stuff is good I've seen a couple already and have a favorite or two-so get tickets)
This week more random titles with a whole slew of new releases thrown in for good measure

And now some links ala the Great Randi

Gaudi's cathedral 
Rarely seen images of Chaplin
20th Century's Greatest Composers
6 hours on Blah Airlines
The annotated Star Wars

Violets (2014)

Jim Vendiola's VIOLETS is small scale subtle piece of horror that the director says is based on true events. While not a film of overt scares it is one that will creep you out.

The film concerns two women, what their relationship is is not explained in the film. Its clear either they are either near incestuous sisters or lovers.  Time passes. They clean houses. They go to the botanical garden, they eat their meals from cans. Then one day they put their plan into action.

I can't tell you any more, I don't want to ruin the film for you since this is a film that not a lot happens but yet a great deal does.

The film works because Vendiola manages to create a mood and a sense of the world askew, from the opening electronic riff that is heard several times threw the film, to the twinning of the the two women, the use of silences and the stark, almost bare visuals this film wonderfully creates a world that is off.

I love the look of the film. I love the starkness of the women's world. There are huge open spaces even in their confined apartment that give us a sense of emptiness. Just how empty their world is is revealed in several of the final moments which kind of flip the emptiness on it's head.

Curse you Jim Vendiola, you've made a film that is damn near hard to discuss unless you're doing so with someone who's seen it.

While I like the film a great deal there is one niggling question that keeps me from calling it a truly great little film - then again it could be me over thinking things. Sadly it's not something I can discuss, lest I wreck a bit of the film for you. However niggling question or no this is a really good, nay near great little film, that is worth your time and the effort to see it when it plays near you. (The film is currently under consideration at a number of festivals for the 2015 season. and it will appear online next year)

"Violets" Teaser (2014) from Jim Vendiola on Vimeo.

Curse of the yellow snake (21963)

Story of a cursed jeweled snake that when has the potential to make the possessor invincible. The snake is hidden in a burial crypt in a pagoda in Hong Kong. When thieves try to steal it, killing someone in the process, the owner knows that a great evil is in the land. Sending his son to London to marry, despite his protest of wanting to stay and find the men behind the attack, the battle for the snake heats up. In London the son meets his half brother, a rich man who is half Chinese, who has designs on the snake. The battle between the brothers becomes a struggle for control of the world.

This is a yellow peril story that is more akin to a Fu Manchu story then the mysteries that are the norm in the Edgar Wallace series. Actually it isn't surprising since Wallace was the man who came up with the story for King Kong, so a tale of high adventure is right up his alley.

This is a very good little film, not just because it breaks with the conventions of the rest of series, nor just because it's a ripping yarn, but the film is unique in that while all of the characters are likable, most of them are not wholly nice. Our hero is roguish and almost rakish, his father is willful and clearly possessing a past of darkness, his brother is charming as well as villainous, the heroine is at times almost mousy, her sister a bit too self centered, and the girls' father is a shady business man who will do anything to keep himself afloat including offering up the girls. No one is spotless, except perhaps for the hero's antique loving friend. It's an interesting group of people and it makes the film have a great sense that anything can happen at any time.

More than worth a bowl of popcorn and a soda.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014) New York Film Festival

Foxcatcher is a great film. It’s a film that perfectly lays out a certain headspace and forces its audience to live there for two hours.

The film is the story of Mark and Dave Shultz, two gold medal winning Olympic wrestlers who get hooked up with John du Pont, a billionaire who wants to train wrestlers for the glory of America. du Pont’s plan relies on getting both of the Schultz brothers to come stay at his Foxcatcher estate. Mark agrees to come and try and get his brother to join them. Unfortunately Dave doesn’t want to come being happily settled with his family. What transpires is a story of madness and murder.

The big talk about the film is about Steve Carell and his chameleon like performance as du Pont, and while he is excellent creating a cypher of madman, the real talk should be about Channing Tatum as Mark and Mark Ruffalo as Dave. Tatum is amazing and if there is any justice he’ll get a nomination over Carell since he makes Marks‘s pain of just being alive tangible. You can feel his pain in a way few performers have ever managed to express. It’s a performance that takes Tatum out of the good looking actors who don’t do much into the realm of being a real actor who doesn’t need his looks to get by.

Mark Ruffalo as his brother is scary good. Bulked up to play Dave with a balding head of hair and full beard I didn’t recognize him for about 15 minutes of screen time. He is like Tatum, scary good.

The film is in some ways a mediation on events. Some details are not spelled out, we are just observers of what the film shows us. Details of events before the events in the film are lacking. The film also takes a few (possibly unfortunate) short cuts to show us the decline of the characters. It all creates a head space that is both other weirdly and deeply disturbing.

Its clear early on that Mark is looking for something more. We can feel the desperation in his life. We know why he jumps at the chance to work with du Pont. Likewise its perfectly understandable why Dave doesn’t want to go. He’s happy in a house and a home and a steady gig for the first time in his life.

As for du Pont, it’s never clear what his motivation is. He’s a man who has everything and yet is still chasing something. He’s a man who wants to make his own way in the world but has no real clue how to do it. We can guess some of what he’s up to but not all of it. His world is big and shiney and full of very empty spaces.

I fell into the film. There was something about the way it presents it world that intrigued me and pulled me in. I was willing to go with it along for the ride, where ever it took me. I was willing to forgive any bumps in the narrative because it was genuinely making me feel something, discomfort, curiosity and fear. For me the strengths of the film all came together into a glorious whole that doesn’t feel or act like any other film.

And what I love about the film is that director Bennett Miller doesn't give us answers. He throws it all out there and lets us make up our own minds. Its a brilliant move that most directors wouldn't have been ballsy enough to do.

I know some people have been less generous to the film despite the Oscar buzz. Two friends after the New York Film festival screening were bemoaning the film’s flaws and short cuts (the depiction of drug and alcohol use for example). I didn’t like them either but I was okay with them. They didn’t pull me out of the very powerful spell of the film.

I’m on record as saying this is the first film I saw this year worthy of the Oscar buzz. I need to correct that, this is the second one since I saw Whiplash two weeks earlier and that too is worthy of Oscar praise. Either way, first or second, this this is one hell of a movie and one of the ones at the top of 2014’s cinematic medal stand

secretof the red orchid (1962)

Yet another film in the long running cycle of Edgar/Bryan Wallace films that flowed out of Germany in the 1960's and early 1970's. This time the story concerns a blackmailer who threatens very rich men with death if they don't pay up. The bodies of those that don't pay are dumped in front of Scotland Yard.

As with many of these films its a bit confusing at first with several plot threads wandering through the story (Chicago gangsters, FBI agent, the blackmail scheme) before coming together at the end.

Unfortunately this really isn't a story where its worth seeing how it all comes together. The plot is more than a bit unfocused, even by this series standards,There are too many characters and too much comedy so that the film fails to be compelling.

My unhappiness with the film could be the result of the English dub which has even Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski dubbed by other actors who's vocal performances don't even approximate how Lee or Kinski would have done it themselves. The result is that you never really buy whats going on screen.

Certainly this would be perfect if you stumbled on it at 2am on late night TV, but I would be hard pressed to suggest actually renting or buying this on DVD and putting it on willingly.