Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Daughter of Darkness (1948) and Burke and Hare (1972)

UK-based distributor Salvation Films have just unveiled two new-to-DVD releases on their Redemption USA line: Daughter of Darkness> (1948) and Burke and Hare (1972). While both share a debt to Val Lewton's less-is-more B-horror productions (the former to Cat People [1942] and the latter to The Body Snatcher [1945]), neither is merely imitative. Instead, they diverge from their forerunners in distinctive, and often eccentric, ways, culminating in works that at once pay tribute to their roots but also stand apart.

Read my full reviews here at The L Magazine.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sweetgrass (2009)

Is Sweetgrass even a movie about sheep? Not in the sense that March of the Penguins is about penguins. There’s hardly a frame in Sweetgrass without a specimen of Ovis aries bleating, grazing, or even gazing into the camera, yet the educational and didactic rhetoric that typically characterizes entries in the “animal documentary” genre is noticeably absent. Diverging from the cutesy aesthetics that made Luc Jacquet’s penguin exposé an accessible, international hit, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor taken a far more empirical approach. There is no voice-over narration or “talking head” commentary, and until the very end of the movie there are no explanatory intertitles, either. Instead, they have crafted an ambient narrative in the cinéma vérité tradition that demands patient observation from the audience, but also rewards their attentiveness...

Read my full review of Sweetgrass here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Private Century (2006-2008)

Originally an eight-part miniseries for Czech television, Sikl's cycle recollects the history of Czechoslovakia throughout the twentieth century by using different families' home movies with narration based on memoirs, diaries, and interviews with surviving friends and family. Each episode tells a distinctive story (though a couple are related), and together they form a powerful alternative to any notion of an official history that privileges politicians and isolated demographics. Instead, the only milestones celebrated here are births, first loves, family gatherings and other minutiae that capture joys both banal and transcendent. The tragedies, however, are inexorably linked to the larger political climate, and Sikl's microcosms bring much-needed specificity to the ambiguities of history's annals.

Read my full review of Private Century here at The L Magazine.

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Like Russian matryoshka dolls, The Saragossa Manuscript is an incessant parade of narratives-within-narratives-within-narratives (and still more). Minor characters overtake the role of narrator, interrupting one story in order to tell their own, which is inevitably interrupted by the start of another story from another narrator. Igniting this labyrinthine progression is the chance encounter between two soldiers of opposing sides during the Napoleanic Wars, both of whom momentarily bond over a dusty, antiquated volume that, as it turns out, recollects the adventures of one of their grandfathers, Captain Alphonse van Worden. Such is the first of many leaps back and forth through time and space.

Read my full review of The Saragossa Manuscript here at The L Magazine.

Paradise (2009)

Michael Almereyda’s Paradise begins with a slow tracking shot taken from a moving walkway in an airport. It’s a contradiction of movement and stasis: the camera and its holder are completely still, yet the ground beneath them perpetually propels them forward. Later in the movie, a character will comment that they love natural disasters because they “like that the earth is changing and moving.” Even the modernist architecture of the passageway—cool and steely lines converging in a distant vanishing point and whose hues fluidly shift from blue to green to purple—lends an aura of science-fiction to the shot, as though we are more than moving through a single corridor, but traveling beyond the liminal boundaries of our everyday world.

Read my full review of Paradise here at Hammer to Nail.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Foolish Wives (1922)

Foolish Wives is less a comedy than a mockery, taking as its targets the moral underpinnings of society; the sanctity of marriage; love’s purity; masculinity; femininity; and, of course, the aristocratic elite. A cursory glance at von Stroheim’s filmography reveals these as reoccurring preoccupations: compulsive concerns that the director never tired of holding a mirror up to and revealing the hypocrisy that lay beneath a virtuous façade. Von Stroheim’s laughter is sadistic. He derives pleasure from exposing the fraudulent virtues of others, even though he, more than anyone, is complicit in the widespread corruption.

Read my full review of Foolish Wives here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Oh, the Depravity! The Cinema of Erich von Stroheim

What remains of an artist, his career, or his work, after having endured so many detours, disappointments, and derailings? Titles changed, credit revoked, productions halted, scenes reshot by other directors, and the humiliation of being thrown off the set of your own movie. These are but a smattering of the setbacks encountered by Erich von Stroheim throughout his directorial career, which began with a bang in 1919 and ended with a whimper in 1933 with a film that bore no mention of his name. All of this makes von Stroheim’s status as an auteur at once obvious and problematic. Few directors before him were as gung-ho about artistry and authorship (his name proliferates the credits of his films, leaving no question as to whom is the true creator); fewer dared to cause the scandals that he did, pushing the buttons of censors and studios past the point of compromise; and no one had their films as distorted (sometimes released incomplete) as Erich von Stroheim...

Read my full essay "Oh, the Depravity! The Cinema of Erich von Stroheim" here at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

A minimalist explosion of aesthetic and political rage, there's never been anything quite like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) either before or since. At first glance the film, new on a Criterion DVD, may resemble a fusion of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974), the former a timebomb of middle-class ennui and the latter an expression of gender-binding anxiety in the suburbs. It's true, Jeanne Dielman hits these marks, but the 25-year-old director takes these themes to a radical, transcendent extreme...

Read my full review of Jeanne Dielman, 23, qui du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles here at The L Magazine.

Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913 (Kino)

The history of film is anything but set in stone. New discoveries, much-needed restorations and increased availability often change our perspective on topics long since thought to be behind us. The most exciting and intriguing part of Kino's new 3-DVD box set Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913 isn't the work of either of the already celebrated filmmakers—Alice Guy (among the very first women filmmakers) or Louis Feuillade (the stylized master of series such as Les Vampires and Judex)—but a relatively obscure name whose films have been absent from shelves, and whose legacy has unfortunately been overlooked: Léonce Perret.

Read my full review of Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913 here at The L Magazine.

Husbands (1970)

Husbands is an essential companion piece to A Woman Under the Influence, made four years later. To see one without the other is to get only half of the story of domestic discontent pushed to its limits. Just as Gena Rowlands's Mabel of A Woman Under the Influence is frustrated and unfulfilled by her role as the stay-at-home mom who alternately waits for husband and kids to come home, the male trio at the core of Husbands are equally dissatisfied by the strict gender binary which has written out their role for them with little room for agency or expression. They are alienated from their wives and children, disconnected from their friends, and living only for "the job" and nothing else...

Read my full review of John Cassavetes' Husbands here at The L Magazine.

Woman on the Beach (2006)

What is remarkable about Hong’s directorial style is its directness. In this digital age, where the influence of technology over movies is so controversial, Hong seems to speak to a different sensibility. His style is sparse: that compositions seem natural seems to be the most important thing. What one notices in Woman on the Beach is a lack of stylized lighting, obvious color schemes, extreme high or low camera angles, fast cutting and special effects. Hong favors an unobtrusive camera, using long-takes to best capture the relaxed performances of his actors, with light zooming or panning in order to re-frame the action or pay particularly close attention to an actor...

Read my full review of Hong Sang-Soo's Woman on the Beach here at Coupe Cinema.