Magic in the Moonlight, written and directed by Woody Allen

Seeing a new Woody Allen film in the theater has been a yearly ritual for so long it’s natural to go in with high expectations and setting aside the misgivings left over from the occasional misses among the hits. Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, now joins Mr. Allen’s small collection of misses. Thankfully in this, his 45th feature-length film as director, we are spared the Woody Allen surrogates of recent years and we get Emma Stone being mostly Emma Stone (though at times her facial expressions and enunciation can feel a bit too contemporary for the 1928-set film) and Colin Firth inhabiting the British upper crust that fits him like a glove in a story about Stanley (Firth), a celebrated magician traveling to the south of France to debunk Sophie (Stone), a young psychic allegedly attempting to bilk a wealthy naïve widow longing to connect with her dead husband.

The film opens on a whimsical note with Mr. Firth’s magician in Asian make-up complete with Fu-Manchu mustache on stage in Berlin making an elephant disappear and performing other staged tricks for a rapt audience. Afterwards he is approached by an old friend (Simon McBurney) who tells him of Sophie, whose talents as a medium are apparently impressively convincing. Off to France they go, the dyspeptic Stanley nearly rubbing his hands together in glee in anticipation of un-masking the fraud. The French countryside provides stunning scenery and, as usual with Mr. Allen, the film’s pacing, framing, editing and camera work seem effortless. The sets and props are seductive and the use of period music is mostly entrancing although the choice of a snippet of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for a heavy scene feels, well, heavy-handed.

In fact, much of the film is heavy-handed and filled with dialogue that is more often than not expository. Characters are constantly telling each other what they think and feel, allowing for virtually no subtext or subtlety. Despite a theme concerned with, ultimately, the existence of God, the film never delves beneath its glossy surface. Mr. Allen has often mined the after-life for humor, poking fun at life’s meaning in Love and Death (1975) and presenting a memorably blunt assessment of how Jesus would react to contemporary society in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). But in Magic in the Moonlight there is no winking at the camera and few real laughs. And the about-face Firth’s character makes, falling in love with Stone’s con artist after dismissing any kind of affection for her feels too convenient, leading, disappointingly though not unexpectedly, to the moment when they kiss, which comes off as forced and only highlights the glaring age difference between the two actors (28 years).

In the end, Magic in the Moonlight feels rushed and, as with the few other of Mr. Allen’s failed comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001, and Whatever Works, 2009, come to mind), a film that is enjoyable to a degree as a work of entertainment but disappointing in its weightlessness given the talent, themes and resources involved. Such disappointment can morph into irritation, given the many classics Mr. Allen has produced over the years. We enter into this particular audience-filmmaker relationship knowing that this is the writer/director who gave us Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days and, just last year, the startling Blue Jasmine. So take what pleasure you can from the visuals and hang on to the hope that Mr. Allen, an amateur magician in his youth, will pull a true magic trick from his sleeve next time.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater

In a year with few truly memorable films thus far (Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida being one of the memorable ones and Oscar season still to come), the predictable summer gave us a bit of fresh air with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Shot over a period of twelve years with the same actors, including frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke, Boyhood allows us to witness the passage of time, focusing on Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, Fast Food Nation) who grows from 6 to 18 during the course of the film. Though by no means a documentary, framed as it is by a story in which Mason and his sister Samanatha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) spend generally carefree weekends with their father (an outstanding Hawke) and home life with often-frustrated mother Patricia Arquette after the parents divorce, the film does allow us to see the actors age, creating a (mostly fascinating) opportunity to observe the fleeting nature of time and the “now.”

Part of what makes Boyhood work so well is the equal focus on small moments (bowling, camping, playing in a park) and milestones (first day at a new school, high school graduation, leaving home for college). In fact, it’s the little moments that are most convincing, moments that are casual on the surface yet mine frank emotion, such as the “talk about sex” that Dad gives Samantha over French fries in a public eatery, Lorelei Linklater truly shining as an embarrassed teen not wanting to hear about condoms from her father. Her nearly horrified laughter is not only infectious, it feels real and all the more infectious because of how real it feels. It hardly seems like acting.

The big moments, unfortunately, don’t fare quite as well, occasionally feeling forced such as when Arquette’s mother breaks down as Mason, Jr. packs to leave for college. Arquette seems distant throughout the film and her sobbing in this farewell scene is not entirely convincing. Perhaps it’s the just the struggle for art to replicate life showing its strain but throughout the film a certain level of empathy that should be present feels elusive. Part of the problem is that except for Mason, Samantha and Mason, Jr., most of the characters come across as people you wouldn’t really want to spend a whole lot of time with. And near the two-thirds mark, a certain fatigue and tediousness starts to threaten, just like in real life when we find ourselves spending too much time with a relative or friend who we love, certainly, but who have the distinct ability to drive us up a wall. Truly, familiarity can breed contempt, in life and in the movies, and one of the points one may take away from Boyhood is we are none of us perfect nor always a pleasure to be around, but you only have one family. The problem is, at a running time of 165 minutes, the film, like those friends and relatives, can tax our patience.

Yet it all pays off beautifully as the film ends on a wonderfully understated moment with Mason, Jr. in the rocky outdoors, away from home at college and stoned, tentatively connecting with a sweet girl he’s just met. The tone is of uncertainty mixed with hopefulness, a tone that informs the entire movie and, for many of us, our daily lives. Boyhood taps into that, that sadness and happiness, that regret and hopefulness, and reflects it back to us. Through it all, we get the evolving picture of Mason, Jr, a budding artist; through the early teenage years when he seems a bit more thoughtful than everyone around him to the pimpled high school days of purple fingernail polish (applied by his then-girlfriend/eventual first heartbreak) and, then, the beginning of the journey of finding himself.


Richard Linklater and the cast of Boyhood at Sundance, 2014

To whatever degree one can relate to the various characters, be it the divorced father, the single working mother, the children of divorce, Linklater has created a unique film that will lead thoughtful viewers to muse on the relationships in their own lives, the passage of time, and, ultimately, mortality – their own and that of those close to them. This is a film that should resonate for many people with moments in their own lives, working, as great films can, like a poem. A poem we once loved but haven’t read or spoken or thought about for years and that now lies buried in our consciousness. One of the few gifts of merciless time is that we can return to that poem, if we choose, and the feelings it once evoked, and for one brief moment all the years may drift away like fallen leaves. That a film that works on such a level was released in the middle of summer is a gift, one that should be relished in the theater while it still can. At home, on TV, with the cell phone nearby and thoughts of ice cream in the freezer waiting to be consumed, Boyhood will feel a lot more like television than poetry. Good television, certainly, but not poetry.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau

Based on the unsubtle trailer, I wasn’t expecting much when I took in Jon Favreau’s latest work as director, here also serving as writer and star, mostly due to the inevitable clichés I would have to digest along with the promised food porn. And it didn’t disappoint in this regard, Favreau’s schlubby chef, Carl, being ridiculously talented and his love interests played by the exuberant Sofia Vergara and the almost absurdly sensual Scarlett Johansson. And then there was Dustin Hoffman, spewing spittle all over the kitchen as his demanding boss. As expected, the story follows Carl who, after his kitchen creativity is stymied, walks out on the job and starts selling food from a truck on a road trip that gains fame on Twitter for his perfect Cuban sandwiches thanks to the internet savvy of his young son, Percy (an excellent Emjay Anthony).

If a lot of this sounds predictable, it is. But at a certain point the food took over, as it must in a satisfying food film, as well as the more interesting sub-plot of the relationship between the gruff, tough-love Carl and the yearning Percy, culminating in a surprisingly moving montage of one-second video clips from their road trip edited together by Percy into a short movie. Damn if that montage wasn’t moving and heartfelt and, quite literally, the stuff great film moments are made of. In fact, that little montage took me back to a month earlier when I had re-visited Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights (1931). With all due respect to Mr. Favreau, I am not comparing the director of Elf and Iron Man to the director of The Gold Rush and Modern Times. But the sweet montage that Favreau caps his film with taps into the same reservoir of feeling, the same swelling in one’s heart that should and must occur during the final scene in City Lights, when the formerly blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) suddenly realizes that it was the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) who was her benefactor only after she feels his hands and touches his face.

He looks at her shyly and filled with love. “Now you can see?” She gazes back at him in wonder and with love, too, that starts to grow. “Yes, now I can see.” Seeing, of course, not only physically but also the truth, realizing how wrong she was to judge him by his physical appearance. That City Lights fades out immediately makes the scene even more potent. What will happen to these two? There could have been a whole other film: Cut to one year later, the Tramp is working alongside his love in their flower shop, the Tramp mucking things up but everything coming out all right in the end.

With that one little flourish, Favreau takes us from light fare into a tender and sweet place, utilizing the visual as much as the aural. Of course, silent film works on a different level than conventional cinema and the great ones, including most of Chaplin’s, are filled with memorable moments, not just capped with them. But viewers wary of Chef’s premise may find themselves surprisingly satisfied with this light meal.

And if you haven’t seen City Lights (available from the public library and out in a new Blu-ray from Criterion), definitely give that a shot. For a silent film, it has an awful lot to say.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Katja Loher’s “Bang Bang!”


Whimsically psychedelic, Katja Loher’s “Bang Bang!” offers up a colorful investigation upon man’s interaction with his ecological environment. The elongated space of the C24 Gallery houses what is a seemingly cold empty space, but with popping manifestations of scattered globes upon the ceiling, we’re warmed by constant moving projections of videography. At first glance, one simply assumes the interchanging colors rotating into words (like “Bang Bang!” or “Why” or “Hope”) are some sort of Photoshop rendering, but at a closer look, we see the words form by individuals dressed in monochromatic leotards shape-shifting their bodies into swift movements indiscernible by the untrained eye. Although, perhaps what’s most fascinating, intriguing, and unique about Loher’s work are the glass globes that encase her small video installations.

While some glasses remain open at the top for us to peer into, others close at the top, hinting at a delicacy that acts as subtle and breakable protection. The bulging imperfections of the glass (some are not holistically round, but rather protrude out mimicking the formation of a bubble), obscure our view of the video and make us rethink what we’re looking at. The “roundness” (if I could call it that) Loher gives to her video art, changes previous perceptions and classic renderings we have about how video is projected and how we consume it. On top of that, it’s a political statement about the ecological world she’s commenting on. Perhaps, it is man who lives in a bubble, not realizing the dire need to in fact, preserve, for example, the world of bees (check out the documentary by Markus Imhoof More Than Honey for a great in depth analysis of the world’s reliance on bees).

There is one great moment in her films that showcases a man trying to escape from a box filled with styrofoam peanuts. As a light-hearted fairy-esque gaming sound motif plays lightly in the backdrop of the gallery, we can only think of the irony of man’s struggle. Much of what we thrive off of would not exist in reality were it not for the much-avoided land of honey bees, bats, butterflies, and hummingbirds, that she displays for us in this world of fantasy. She places each upon their own respective “gaming” device in a juxtaposed room. Man’s game with his environment may look alarmingly bright and cheerful in Loher’s world, but it is, at best, her way of commenting through mixed media, performance art, video art, and blown-glass that we should step out of our own dream worlds, as colorful and perfect as they may be, and question, as the ever-changing human bodies do, “Why?”.

Although “Bang Bang!” is no longer on display at the C24 Gallery, please take a look at Loher’s work at: http://www.c24gallery.com/exhibitions/katja-loher/

Review written by Bebe Nodjomi (http://independentfilmnow.com/?p=920)

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

On DVD: Take Me Home, written and directed by Sam Jaeger

Take Me Home (2011) is a terrific indie road trip/romantic comedy well worth seeking out as a satisfying example of how much can be done with a limited budget. The one issue that must be overcome is a moment of stretched credulity that, challengingly, the plot hinges upon. Claire (Amber Jaeger), having just caught her husband flirting with his secretary on a particularly rough day, hails a cab in Manhattan, impulsively tells the driver to “just drive,” and falls asleep, emotionally exhausted. Taxi driver Thom (writer/director Sam Jaegar), who’s been kicked out of his apartment, his not so wordly possessions crammed in the car’s trunk, is more than happy to oblige. So drive he does, until the wee hours of the morning when a not-quite horrified Claire wakes in the cab cruising along the highway outside Pittsburgh. If the film followed the rules of actual life, this is where Claire would get on her cell phone and call the police. Instead, after a brief mild freak-out, she decides to have him drive her all the way to California where her estranged father lies dying in a hospital; Claire is afraid of flying though she makes an attempt at it by having Thom drive her to the airport where she’s unable to force herself to buy a ticket.

Claire and Thom haggle over the price and she agrees to pay him five thousand dollars for the cross-country cab ride; the plot hinges upon this moment and it does stretch believability but it’s plot medicine that goes down easily thanks to the easy chemistry between the leads, a married couple in real life. Sam Jaegar, with his chiseled chin and long face, conveys a less-confident Aaron Eckhart while Amber Jaegar has a fierceness and striking beauty that would be at odds with her character’s frequent crying jags if not for her strong acting chops. Her annoyed looks at Thom are film gold that undoubtedly come from the comfort level this real-life couple bring to the screen. Both actors excel at utilizing their eyes and facial expressions to subtly convey emotion and annoyance with each other to humorous effect.

The film is full of road trip humor and a few tense scenes such as when Claire, herself dosing, wakes to find Thom asleep at the wheel on the highway in the middle of the night. She takes over driving though she does not have a driver’s license and they both wake in the car hours later, Claire herself having fallen asleep at the wheel, the car having drifted safely far off the road into the rural countryside and now out of gas. It’s at once a moment of humility for the angry Claire and an opportunity for the two to bond in a not-unexpected moment in the cold night when Thom shares his jacket with Claire to keep her warm. That’s a nice touch, Thom sharing his coat but not giving it entirely to Claire, speaking volumes about their wary relationship at that point.

Predictability is always a hurdle for rom-coms to overcome and Take Me Home hits a few typical road bumps such as Thom being a photographer who can’t get a break, taking photos along the way including of a reluctant Claire which we just know are going to show up meaningfully at the end, as they do in a coffee-table book of his work Thom somehow gets published. What’s remarkable about this film, at heart a romantic comedy with a healthy handful of tender moments, is how co-star/writer/director Sam Jaeger keeps it uncertain, up until the very end, as to whether these two frustrated and conflicted souls will come together. Along the way we get lots of feistiness and tension between the two, and a few moments that are both funny and touching, especially when accomplished supporting actors Lin Shaye, as Claire’s slightly loopy mother, and Victor Garber and Christine Rose as Thom’s uptight father and bizarrely cheerful mother, are introduced late in the film. By then, we’ve come to care about these two imperfect individuals and it’s enlightening to finally have some light shed on where they come from and how they got to where they are. It’s part of the journey of this road trip film, one well worth taking.

Visit the website to view the trailer and download Take Me Home digitally: http://www.takemehomemovie.com/

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

2013 Best Films List – Brendan Rose

2013 was a remarkable year in movies, with strong offerings across all the major sectors that attain American distribution – Hollywood; American independent; international art-house; and documentary. Bright spots abounded. An unusually high number of award-season Hollywood films, for instance, were of stellar quality (and could not all make this list). Moreover, a handful of the world’s cinematic masters made movies that lived up to the lofty reputations of their creators.

As with any year, there were also big-budget clunkers, half-baked indies and overhyped stocking stuffers, but 2013 will certainly be remembered for what it achieved rather than for which films disappointed. And as with any year, I have completed this list without having seen every promising film. To name a few: Bastards (Claire Denis); The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer); Ceasar Must Die (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani); The Square (Jehane Noujaim).

Without further ado, here is the 2013 list:

TOP TEN
1. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen): In many respects, this is the preternaturally talented McQueen’s most traditional film, but it likewise stands as his most perfect work. Breathtaking performances, a ruthless script, and uncompromising direction make 12 Years the best film we’ve had about the scandalously under represented cinematic subject of United States slavery.

2. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke): Another in ways conventional turn from one of world cinema’s true innovators, Jia’s rigorous exploration of straight-from-the-headlines violence within the underclass of industrial, rising China makes for a gripping action-drama as well as a cri de coeur for a more humane form of economic development.

3. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas): Assayas’s melancholic, mesmerizing film drifts through the post-Soixante-Huitard malaise in France. The film’s lack of retrospective sentimentality along with its non-judgmental approach to the portrayal of youthful exuberance and political conviction are marks of its power.

4. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche): Yes, one particular romantic scene shifts from necessarily revealing to perhaps male-gaze pornographic, but Kechiche’s latest is a masterpiece nonetheless. As a piece of cinema dedicated to the examination of young love as it evolves (and devolves) over time, few movies on the subject stand above it. Seydoux and Exarchopoulos captivate in their lead performances.

5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater): The dynamic trio of Linklater-Delpy-Hawke once again astound with their through-the-years Jesse-Céline tale. This just-middle-age third installment captures spot-on truth-telling sequences amidst crumbling Peloponnese ruins and glimmering Aegean seascapes.

6. Reality (Matteo Garrone): If only everyone who watched Big Brother viewed this haunting but bountiful film about spectacle, reality television and celebrity-consumer obsession. Garrone, the director of the sensational organized-crime study Gomorrah, this time reveals the troubled, entertainment-addled heart of his country, and also of ours.

7. Her (Spike Jonze): The cyber tryst between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly and the Scarlett Johansson-voiced “Samantha” computer operating system plays out magically while Jonze’s anodyne, pastel-toned near-future metropolis secretly screams out in despair.

8. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai): Hong Kong master Wong reinvents the martial arts genre with this tight-focus, idiosyncratic tone poem of a film, one that feels more wistful expressionist painting than high-octane kung-fu flick.

9. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach): Mumblecore star Greta Gerwig shines in Baumbach’s whimsical study of post-collegiate New Yorkers struggling to find purpose and recognition in a world indifferent to their carefully cultivated uniqueness.

10. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler): First-time feature director Coogler and essential actor Michael B. Jordan take a tragic piece of news – the New Year’s 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III on an Oakland BART platform – and create a remarkably authentic, complex portrait of a young man whose life ended all too soon.

HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): American Hustle (David O. Russell); Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola); Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen); Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée); La Grande Belleza (Paolo Sorrentino); Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami).

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Pacific Rim

There is an image in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s live-action update of the Japanese mecha genre, where the huge head of Gipsy Danger, the giant mechanical robot (called a “Jaeger,” German for hunter) built to combat alien “Keiju” monsters, is on par with the tops of skyscrapers as Gipsy Danger moves through the rain-soaked streets of Hong Kong. It is an image that hypnotized me as if from a dream and kept me returning to the theater to see the film two more times. I had to see that image again; I longed to re-enter that film-dream just as when I awake from an actual and particularly interesting dream I’ll hit the snooze button to try and get a few more minutes with it. And that image from Pacific Rim had, in fact, invaded my dreams, speaking to me not of violence and a world at war with aliens but simply of pure awesome power. I’m still not sure if I wanted to be the robot, control the robot or simply watch as it lumbered through the dark city. But not since James Cameron’s Avatar had film images so invaded my conscience that I felt unavoidably drawn back to the images, actually felt a need to experience them again, and again.

Personally I’m not hot on films where actors don suits and save the world with super-powers. I was not a huge comic book fan growing up, save for Heavy Metal magazine which featured futuristic landscapes and fantastical pasts as opposed to superheroes. Usually the sight of an actor in a cape and mask, whether human (Batman) or alien (Superman) makes me have to fight to keep from laughing, though I admit I was swept up in some of the sequences of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Still, this past summer I slogged through Man of Steel, Wolverine, etc., partly out of my desire to simply see every film I can in an actual theater and partly hoping to be swept up in the pure visuals. But I found myself underwhelmed with the 2013 summer blockbusters until, finally, September was closing in and there was only one big one left: Pacific Rim, with its dubious tagline of “To fight monsters we created monsters.” So there I was, on one of the last precious weekends of the summer, popcorn to the left, soda to the right, trying to remain hopeful as the first images of Pacific Rim came on the screen.

What unfolded was more like a dream than any Hollywood big action movie I’ve seen in years (Avatar, 2009). If anything, Pacific Rim reminded me more of the great silent films (Intolerance, Ben Hur) that created utterly believable realties in the biggest most visual way. Perhaps it was the fact that the heroes of Pacific Rim are not super-heroes; they’re normal humans (albeit highly trained at kicking ass) with flaws whose “suits” are machines they control. No magical powers here. Perhaps it was the dark and intense palette del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro employed, one might say too dark at times during some of the fight scenes but isn’t that how dreams are when you try and remember them? Alternately sharp as reality and fuzzy at the edges. In fact, in addition to the image mentioned above, I found other images pleasantly invading my dreams, such as the robots being air-lifted and dropped into the churning ocean to do battle, or Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) losing control to the drift (the neural connection between the two pilots needed to operate each huge Jaeger) walking in an ethereal landscape into the memory of a nightmarish experience with a Keiju she experienced as a child.

This is the stuff move theaters were made for. Grand scale and a world that is fantastical but believable. And it all starts with a 16-minute pre-credit sequence that brings you immediately into that world. When the title finally comes up in a borderline-cheesy font, you just know you’re in for a fun and intense ride à la John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Within days of seeing the film, I wanted to be on that ride again and so within the week I returned to the theater and amazingly, enjoyed it even more, knowing the story now, able to focus more on the details. By the third time, it was like going to see a band perform whom I had seen many times before; I knew the “music” so well I could take time to focus on the edges of the screen, the edges of the scenes. A fourth time would have been absurd and I didn’t want to wear out that warm feeling, but now that Pacific Rim is out on DVD, I am trying to convince all my friends and film-goers who avoided it to give it the chance it deserves.

Is Pacific Rim a perfect film? No. Problems that were apparent in the first viewing only magnified upon subsequent viewings: the main character has no real arc; the greatest moment of victory comes during the penultimate fight not the climax. And why, if the aliens are clones, is one pregnant? These are hiccups along the way (and perhaps that pesky clone question will be answered in the sequel) but they fall away compared to the visual splendor, the pure visual excitement that del Toro and his team have created. Pacific Rim will be much smaller at home and for those who will only see it that way it will not have the impact it did in the theater. But for those who love action films, who truly love movies that take you into another world, I hope you’ll see it at least on DVD. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised.

Although Pacific Rim is not an independent film, as one of the most enjoyable films of the last five years or so I thought it worth writing about. Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Blancanieves, reviewed by Shirley Rodríguez

“Gorgeous” was my first thought when I viewed the trailer for the new film Blancanieves, the Spanish reworking of The Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White. Written and directed by Pablo Berger, it is a black and white silent film in which the actors delivered their performances so beautifully, I barely acknowledged the title cards. I found it amusing that I was automatically lip-reading because I speak Spanish.

In works of art and films that I love, my one demand is that I have to FEEL and do so strongly. There is no lukewarm or tepid. NO. I’m not a fan of in-between. I must feel deeply and passionately.

Snow White has been retold so many times that knowing the story, I felt not much more could be told or expressed. I was so wrong. From beginning to end, I was lost in this hypnotic version as never before.

I was immediately drawn to it because of the cultural and time era elements. I love silent films, the 1920′s setting and the Spanish culture, which is close to my heart. I loved the passionate Flamenco score punctuating every emotion both so beautifully and heartwrenchingly painful throughout. Not a lot of films stay with me, but this one did without question.

The Artist, 2011′s black and white 1920′s era silent gem, was another favorite of mine. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Blancanieves takes elements of what I already loved about The Artist even further. It is by no means a copy, but an additional and welcome homage to the art of silent film. The cinematography is entrancing, darker and more intense, it consistently keeps pulling you in until the end.

There was no question I needed to see this film, and afterwards I left with such strong emotions. It is at times morbid, dark and twisted with a sprinkling of deviance but it is always beautiful.

The darkness and intensity was always present, but lifted and lowered with seamless timing, never feeling forced.

This version is set and opens in 1920′s Sevilla, Spain where we find Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) and her husband Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) the famous bullfighter. Carmen is pregnant and watching her husband in the ring where he is gored, which sets the story in motion. Moving forward, their daughter Carmencita (Sofía Oria), is now motherless and subsequently raised by her grandmother from birth. Her father re-marries a heartless, vain and sadistic woman who is bent on controlling every aspect of his life to her convenience.

As a little girl Carmencita, has a difficult journey. She does not know her father until several years later when she is taken to live in his house, but he is hidden from her by her evil stepmother who despises Carmencita. This is where she sees the darker side of life, a stark contrast to her life with her loving grandmother, Doña Concha ( Ángela Molina).

This time for Carmencita is riddled with pain and torment, but she is ultimately able to re-connect briefly with the father she knew of, but never knew before. For a moment, their loving relationship blooms and transcends any pain and sadness outside of it. His spirit is renewed and she learns valuable lessons from him which will serve her later. Their brief time together gives her the strength and knowledge she will call upon when she needs it most. I feel the true heart of this story is her relationship with her father Antonio

Several years later “Carmencita” is now a young woman and referred to as Carmen. Due to tragic and horrific circumstances she finds herself alone. Carmen/Blancanieves (Macarena García) is found and befriended by a troupe of dwarves who perform in bullfighting arenas. Her connection to this is immediate and natural, and she comes into her own finding her calling in working with them. All the while, her stepmother Encarna played to evil and over the top perfection by Maribel Verdú, follows her career from afar with malicious intentions.

The dwarves are at times humorous, dark and conflicted, but also deliver touching performances as Carmen’s/Blancanieves caretakers. With them, she finds somewhere she belongs at a time she has no one else.

Ultimately, we reach the conclusion we are familiar with, but it is delivered here in such an atypical beautifully sublime manner. I appreciated all of this film’s visual quirks and nuances which are jewels to be discovered. We are shown the spectrum of the beauty and ugliness of life. We also see that love, hope, determination and inner strength even at our lowest counts for much much more than we may think.

Some may see it as piggybacking on a trend/novelty (black and white, silent film, 1920′s) but this movie is strong all on its own. I just choose not to be that jaded.

Absolutely gorgeous and haunting, the beauty of Blancanieves was not lost on me.

Review by Shirley Rodríguez

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Alice Perry on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski

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James Carville once said about his relationship with Mary Matalin, “You can hate the sin but love the sinner.”

I feel the same way about Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer. Mr. Kaminski is a real artist, a real painter of light. His sin? Working with Steven Spielberg, one of the more heavy-handed (think of a sledge hammer repeatedly whacking your head) directors.

Independent filmmakers almost exclusively use the digital medium, but we can all learn a few things from a master manipulator of celluloid like Mr. Kaminski.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Kaminski described how he made “Lincoln” look like a timeless movie—not by CG effects but by simply moving the lights.

“I felt you had to pull back a bit, so as not to jar the audience,” he explained. “One way of achieving that is to not light the walls. They were not 100% unlit, but enough so that the colors of the walls and carpets were muted. You have to think about the philosophy of light. It’s supposed to be motivated by natural sources. But if that logic doesn’t work for dramatic reasons, you adjust.”

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“For example, the gas lamps of Lincoln’s time wouldn’t give enough illumination for the cameras, which are not as sensitive as the eye,” he continues. “You cannot photograph a Spielberg movie using just candlelight. Stanley Kubrick did some shots like that, but with special lenses and just in certain scenes. If you light with just an oil lamp, you will see only the lamp and the face next to it. So I used the natural light in the scene and moved the film lights back. It’s a trick, a cheat. But it works.”

Mr. Kaminski also explained why some people believe that the acting was better during the black-and-white film era.

 “In color movies, actors are not always the main objects of illumination. Sometimes they’re not lit much at all, and audiences start appreciating things that aren’t the most important to the story. In black-and-white films, there’s no color to distract viewers. Consequently, actors in black-and-white movies are the main focus of the frame because they are often the brightest element in the frame. Because you’re not lighting the actors in color films, some attention is drawn away by that absence.”

Perhaps the use of black-and-white film in “The Artist” was the nudge that pushed the Oscar into Jean Dujardin’s hands last year.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Alice Perry on Room 237

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“Room 237,” a documentary about obsessive fans of “The Shining” who read meaning into the film’s most mundane details, opens at the end of March, and I’ll be the first, or last–depending on those rabid Kubrick devotees–in line.

I believe that the film contains footage from a documentary that Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, made in 1980. It’s called “Making the Shining” (yes, just “Making,” not “Making of”), and you may be able to find it tacked onto “The Shining” DVD in the Extras’ section. Here are some of my favorite bits from the doc:

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1) Jack Nicholson getting into character while swinging an ax — and almost knocking over an assistant director — and growling, “Death to pussy”;

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2) Kubrick typing up script notes at the same table where Scatman Crothers and Danny have their “Shine” conversation;

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3) a set worker tossing a bucket of fake blood on the wall;

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4) Jack N. demonstrating how he marks up his script lines, a style he says he copied from Boris Karloff.

That picture of Kubrick at the typewriter reminded me of a scene in another “making of” documentary. In “Hearts of Darkness,” a doc about making “Apocalypse Now,” there’s an image of Francis Ford Coppola also at a typewriter.

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Perhaps this is the start of a great idea: a photo book of great film directors on set at the typewriter, entitled “Directors Type.”

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.