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Monday, March 31, 2014

A Conversation with Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou

A CONVERSATION WITH 
ANG LEE AND ZHANG YIMOU

By Joshua Handler


Last Thursday, March 27, was a night to remember at Cooper Union.  NYU's Tisch School of the Arts partnered with Beijing-based Le-TV to host a private screening of Zhang Yimou's newest film, Coming Home (the screening was not open for media), along with a conversation between Yimou and director Ang Lee, moderated by Tisch professor Christine Choy, herself an Oscar-nominated documentarian.

Zhang Yimou is best known for his tragic stories and rich visual style, having directed a number of acclaimed films (many of which have gone on to Oscar nominations) including Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers.  He also gained recognition for being the lead director of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremonies.

Ang Lee is a two-time Oscar-winner for Best Director and is known for having one of the most diverse filmographies around.  His films are notable for their humanity, grace, and exploration of the relationships that we form with family and lovers.  Lee is best-known for having directed the gay western romance Brokeback Mountain, the British period piece Sense and Sensibility, the young adult fantasy book adaptation Life of Pi, and the record-breaking martial arts romance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, all of which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  Two of his earlier films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The conversation between the two men was in Mandarin and was translated for the English-speakers using an interpreter.  Lee opened the discussion with heavy words of praise for Yimou's Coming Home and the two then continued to discuss a number of topics, the most interesting being how they believe that we are in a golden age of Chinese cinema.  According to them, this is the prime time for young directors in China.  As China becomes increasingly powerful, so does its film industry.

Christine Choy's few comments in between discussion topics were quite funny and lightened the mood.  The tone of the conversation between the two men was one that made evident their mutual respect for each other.  Watching Lee on the stage made it evident why his films are as humane and intelligent as they are...because they are exactly like him.  Lee is soft-spoken and gracious.  Yimou is very similar.

This event was one of celebration, contemplation, and admiration.  Since I was young, I've been watching the films of Yimou and Lee, so being able to see them in conversation was an experience I won't soon forget.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD: ND/NF Centerpiece Review

Courtesy of A24 Films
OBVIOUS CHILD
2014, 83 minutes
Rated R for language and sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child is a gutsy, sharp, and warm-hearted debut film with outstanding performances from Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffmann, Gabe Liedman, Jake Lacy, and Polly Draper, among many others (the entire cast is great).  Described as an "abortion comedy" by many, the film is indeed a film centered around abortion that is funny.

The film follows a stand-up comedienne, Donna Stern (Slate), who sleeps with Max (Lacy), after breaking up with her boyfriend.  She then ends up pregnant and decides that she wants an abortion.

The standout aspect of the film is Jenny Slate who gives a genuine, relatable, and hugely funny performance as Donna.  Slate has a natural charm that carries the film.  I was with Donna every step of the way.  Donna is like so many people that we all know, which makes watching her incredibly amusing.  Slate nails the stand-up sequences, in particular.  They are the highlight of the film, as they're brutally honest, laugh-out-loud funny, and again, relatable.  Gaby Hoffmann (Crystal Fairy) gives a sweet, racy, and heartfelt performance as Nellie, Donna's best friend.  Like in Crystal Fairy, her unusual presence brightens every scene, and her chemistry with Slate is very strong.  Polly Draper's supporting performance as Donna's mom is unexpectedly moving.

While I wish the screenplay had played around a bit more with the typical Brooklyn twenty-something storyline and I wish some of the jokes (outside of the stand-up) had landed harder, this is a screenplay that should be praised for its honesty, smart characterizations, and the simple fact that it made a story centered around abortion funny.  During the post-screening Q&A with Robespierre, Slate, Liedman, and Elisabeth Holm, the film's producer (who also has story credit), the crew discussed how they wanted to see a movie where a woman wants to have an abortion and actually go through with it with conviction.  As they mentioned, one in every three women has had an abortion, so this is obviously a topic that many can relate to.  I give the filmmakers an immense amount of credit for telling the story of a strong woman who has an abortion and then moves on with life.

In Obvious Child, I cared for Donna and Max.  I frequently couldn't care less about central romances in romantic comedies, but in Obvious Child, I actually wanted the two to end up together.  Donna and Max's relationship is treated with respect and realism, so I cared.

Overall, while it has some flaws, Obvious Child is a smart, original piece of work that was very enjoyable to watch.  When A24 releases on June 6, you'll want to see this to say that you saw the film that announced Gillian Robespierre to the world and the film that turned Slate into a movie star.

3.5/4

Friday, March 28, 2014

THE RAID 2 Review


Julie Estelle as Hammer Girl
Photo by Akhirwan Nurhaidir and Gumilar Triyoga
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

THE RAID 2
2014, 148 minutes
Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language

Review by Joshua Handler

Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption was a balls-to-the-wall action film featuring extreme violence in a contained setting.  This time, Evans opens the action up to the entirety of the city and ups both the violence, ambition, insanity, and fun, along with the running time to create an action film unlike any other.

Taking place two hours after The Raid: Redemption ended, The Raid 2 finds Rama (Iko Uwais) going undercover to infiltrate crime lords' rings and bring down corruption in the police force.

Like The Raid: Redemption, this film is about the action.  However, with The Raid 2, Evans gives the film an ambitious crime drama storyline that fuels the action.  The plot is occasionally too convoluted for its own good, but is engaging, clever, and features just enough twists and turns.  However, as mentioned, the action is key here.  Like The Raid: Redemption, Evans uses everything and the kitchen sink in his kinetic action sequences.  This time, as mentioned, the action largely takes place outdoors and is not limited to hand-to-hand combat or gunplay.  The centerpiece of the film is an extended car chase sequence that, without exaggeration, is one of the greatest in cinema history.  Using a long take that spans two moving cars as its most impressive shot, this sequence is rough, violent, and pulse-poundingly brilliant.

What distinguishes the action scenes in the two Raid films, The Raid 2 in particular, is the athleticism of the cinematography, the precision of the editing, and the brutal beauty of the choreography.  Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Sumhono's cinematography is ambitious in its use of long takes and their willingness to follow the action anywhere and from any angle.  Through an extensive and effective use of close-ups, they manage to keep the action simultaneously intimate and epic in scale with an unmatched intensity.  The choreography, much of which is crafted by star Iko Uwais, is graceful, yet incredibly brutal.  The brutality is furthered by Gareth Evans' editing (yes, he edits his own movies too).  The action scenes are occasionally too long for their own good, but he keeps each one moving fast.  I felt the impact of every impalement and beat-down, which leads us to the violence.

I've seen few films as eye-meltingly violent as The Raid 2.  No descriptions can do it justice.  For many, that will be an attraction and for an equal number of people, that will be a deterrent.  In Evans' insistence that we feel every bone break and every slice, he uses an unparalleled amount of explicit gore, particularly in the multi-part climax which is thrilling, satisfying, and again, perfectly choreographed.  The violence is all in the service of realism.

Iko Uwais leads the committed, athletic cast and gives the film a heart.  His excellence during the action and dramatic sequences is quite impressive.  As a martial artist, he is lightning fast, performing sequences that move so fast that it becomes near insanity.  The performances of the supporting cast are also solid.

Overall, The Raid 2 is a superb action film, flaws and all.  While the hand-to-hand action scenes become a bit repetitive after a while (until Evans changes them up, at least), The Raid 2 is thrilling, it pushes the envelope, and it has some of the most spectacularly brutal action scenes ever.  Gareth Evans has topped the first film in every sense of the word, and I cannot wait to see what violent mayhem he dreams up for The Raid 3.

4/4

Thursday, March 27, 2014

THE DOUBLE: ND/NF Review

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in THE DOUBLE, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Photo credit: Dean Rodgers
THE DOUBLE 
2014, 93 minutes
Rated R for language

Review by Joshua Handler


The Double is screening as part of New Directors/New Films tomorrow evening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Richard Ayoade's The Double is best described as the perfect mix between Brazil and Fight Club.  Based on a work by Dostoyevsky, The Double tells the story of a man, Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives his life as an invisible bureaucrat.  Simon lives alone and falls for Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a woman who lives in the building across the way, whom he spies upon using a telescope in his window.  One day, Simon meets James, a man who looks exactly like him, yet personality-wise, is the polar opposite.  As James becomes more of a presence in Simon's life, he starts to drive Simon insane.

The Double is a heavily stylized film with noirish lighting and surrealism galore.  However, as dark and weird as this movie is, Ayoade imbues it with a healthy sense of humor that makes the movie extremely enjoyable.  Erik Winton's energetic cinematography adds to the film's surreal atmosphere and uniqueness.

Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine's wickedly funny screenplay features some sharp dialogue and a story that's always compelling with twists and turns.  It's exhilarating to watch The Double barrel along.  Ayoade keeps the pace extremely fast, never allowing the film to drag.

Jesse Eisenberg gives what might be his best performance(s) yet as Simon and James.  As Simon, Eisenberg portrays his usual kind of character - the shy, nervous man.  It's his scenes as James where he really gets to shine.  James is outgoing, sharp, witty, and a ladies man.  Eisenberg gives James a cocky, nasty edge with an outgoingness that I've never seen from him before.  These opposing characters are beautifully realized by Eisenberg and it is a pleasure to see him expand his range as an actor.

Overall, The Double is a funny, dark, twisted piece of work that was immensely entertaining to watch.  Richard Ayoade seems to have nearly perfected a tone and style with The Double.  Ayoade showed serious directorial promise with his directorial debut feature, Submarine, but Submarine was too heavy on style and too light on story.  With The Double, Ayoade strikes the perfect balance between style and substance, making me very excited to see what he comes up with next.

4/4

Words of Wisdom from Benedikt Erlingsson, Director of OF HORSES AND MEN

A still from OF HORSES AND MEN
Words of Wisdom From 
BENEDIKT ERLINGSSON, 
Director of OF HORSES AND MEN

By Joshua Handler

Director Benedikt Erlingsson's feature film directorial debut, Of Horses and Men, is a darkly comedic film full of love, death, violence, and comedy.  I reviewed it this week.  Erlingsson has been a stage director for the past ten years and also an actor in many films including Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All.  Of Horse and Men has won awards all over the world and was Iceland's official selection to the 2013 Academy Awards.  The film tells interconnecting stories about the animal in every human and the human in every animal.  Of Horses and Men recently showed at New Directors/New Films and I sat down with Erlingsson to discuss the film.

Erlingsson, like his film, has a dry sense of humor.  He's confident, but humble and down to earth, also like his film.  "I'm a storyteller.  The last 10 years I've been directing in theater," he says.  "This has been...kind of a long film school for me.  When I become big, I want to be a film driector.  I think I'm coming of age now."

This wasn't just Erlingsson's first film - it was his editor's too.  "[David Alexander Corso] was...putting the film together.  It was his first film.  We were sitting there together for eight months.  And I think it was a beautiful cooperation.  [H]e said something to me that was very precious.  [I was insecure and started thinking] 'maybe I should prolong this [sequence].'  And then [David] start[ed] doing it.  And I said, 'What are you doing?'  'I'm doing what you are thinking.'  'But I am not sure.'  'We have to follow your impulses.'  And it was so freeing that he wanted to follow my impulses.  So then...I followed his impulses [and] he followed my impulses.  We supported each other's impulses...and it was like a...university for us."

Erlingsson describes his directorial style on Horses as "tyrannical."  "This film is very much like that.  It's a [screenplay] that I've been working on for a long time...and then everybody has to obey me.  But that's not always like this in the creative process."  Benedikt directs in this way because he thinks very much like a painter and tells "dramatical stories without any text."  By doing this, "you...get into a very deep condition of concentration...and then you try to put that on paper.  And then you have to trust that.  When somebody comes to me on the set, and says, 'Hey why is he [a character] in pants?  Can we not change this?'...I have no idea why he is in pants, but I know there is a good reason there, I just can't remember it...  So then the [script] is the [tyrant], is the king, is the god...well I don't understand it now, but it was written by the great author...and we have to obey him...and then in the editing room I understand it again..."

Erlingsson's roots as an actor have heavily informed his directing.  "I come through the acting," he says. "As a director I'm an actor first.  And in a way I became [a] better actor when I started directing.  I was a problematic actor with my own ideas and attitude against the director - they were always stupid.  When I started directing, I understood something new about my role as an actor, that I was producing material, and I have [produce it]...honorably and with sincerity and humbleness.  I had to humbly produce.  [Theatre acting] is more building the house with the director, but with film, the actor is just producing material, he's just producing stones for somebody else to build the house."

In Erlingsson's short film, "The Nail" and in Of Horses and Men, there isn't a large amount of dialogue.  Much of this is due to Erlingsson's background as a stage director.  "[Movement is] stronger.  In the theater, I learned that movement...is...stronger...than words, so if somebody is saying something on the right side of the stage and somebody moves on the left side, the focus of the audience goes to the movement.  [Miming] gives more space to the audience.  I create a universe inside of you, you try to fill it up, but if I tell you...in words, it becomes a little bit smaller.  That's the beauty with film and theater - that is the extra thing that they have."

Despite his dark sense of humor and self-described tyrannical direction, Erlingsson has a humane side and a deep respect for the animals that so often get killed in Of Horses and Men.  "I think of these two animals that are co-oexisting together there on this island in this world.  I think the human beings are the more dangerous ones, and in a way, you can learn a lot about the old slave societies while watching the relationship between man and horse because though it's very lovely...'we love our horses, they are our family, we adopt the horses' and so on...you can sell...a horse that you don't like...In other families...they are not so much into this family horse thing.  They just buy good horses and [if] it's not good enough, they sell it...while other families are taking care.  [A]t the same time, they maybe...eat the horse also.  I think in the slave societies [it] happens like this, 'I love my old slave, she brought me up, and I would like [her] to bring my children up, but her youngest daughter I will sell away...I don't like her.'  There's a paradox in the love and the brutality."

On the joys of unenjoyable art: "The most fantastic thing in the learning process...if you are a film director or a theater director, is the bad stuff.  When you are forced to sit there for two hours in a bad theater play...you get stuff to get ideas.  It's a very creative spot sitting in the middle of a group of 200, 500 people and we are doomed to sit here together...and then you have to go to a happy place...and that's [a] very educating and fertile situation."

And some final thoughts on his screenplay and the stories he likes to tell: "The essence of this [screenplay] is like from the oral culture.  It's like stories that you tell each other, and they take form.  When I make a mosaic picture of this, I think the shock of it [catches] attention.  I love films...where you don't know where they are headed. It's like, 'What? You killed the main character?  What happens now?'  And I think the ears and eyes...open up.  You go out of the cliché.  We are so unconsciously bored of the three-act, classical dramaturgy of films...[I]n a sense this helps me...[put the audience] into the third dimension.  It's like Berthold Brecht...he wanted to distance [the audience] to make them think.  Film is so good to hypnotize us, suck us in...we totally forget ourselves into the psychology of this character and then we come out full of popcorn and Coca-Cola and we feel clarified...because somebody has gone through changes...we don't have to change...somebody has met obstacles in his life...and we feel catharsis, full of sugar and salt.  But this effect is like to press us to say, 'What is this?  Why are we doing this?'  And I love this kind of storytelling.  Life is dangerous and people are dying...[E]ven accidents in drama, dramatic things, when we make a story about it, we tend to make it comical.  If something terrible happens to me on the beach - I go to swim...and I lose my swimming suit and so I have to run naked onto the beach and everybody laugh[s] at me - this is a drama for me...but when I tell this story, it is a...funny story...so that's human beings and in that sense, when we talk about death and drama...it's my kind of storytelling - we...put a smile on in a way."

Of Horses and Men played New Directors/New Films this week and currently does not have a U.S. distributor.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

THE BABADOOK: ND/NF Review

Essie Davis (top) and Noah Wiseman (bottom) in Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK
Courtesy of IFC Midnight
THE BABADOOK
2014, 92 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is, no exaggeration, the scariest movie in years.  It makes The Conjuring look like Bambi.  Scary isn't even an apt word to describe The Babadook.  Terrifying is more accurate.  Using little violence and no gore, Kent crafts a haunting, dramatically potent film that will haunt you in more ways than one long after it has ended.

Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother whose husband died immediately before their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born.  Amelia is still grieving years later and the resulting depression has affected Samuel.  One day, Samuel finds a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, on his shelf and he and Amelia read it before bed, only to find that its contents are extremely disturbing.  Samuel begins to see Mister Babadook, the entity from the story, around the house and The Babadook begins to haunt Samuel and Amelia.

The tension increases slowly and Kent simultaneously increases the drama until the horror storyline and dramatic storyline are mixed.  In terms of horror, there are no new tactics used in The Babadook, but Kent sets up the Babadook story so well through the pop-up book that we dread what's coming next.  The dim, atmospheric lighting and Radoslaw Ladczuk's clever cinematography bring the terror to the next level.  Very few horror movies phase me, but The Babadook had me sweating through my clothes.

The dramatic storyline of The Babadook strengthens the horror storyline.  Kent's depiction of grief is realistic and (without spoiling anything), the way that she combines that with the main storyline about The Babadook is unpredictable and, quite frankly, ingenious.  Few films have the emotional punch or the poignancy that this movie has.  The Babadook and J.A. Bayona's wonderful The Orphanage are very much alike in that they are as disturbing and horrifying as they are subtle and moving.

Much of The Babadook's success rests on the shoulders of Davis and Wiseman who both give powerful performances.  Horror movies aren't usually known for their superb acting, so to find one that is largely based around the performances is a huge surprise.  Davis has appeared in a number of well-known films, but The Babadook really gives her a chance to shine.  Her performance shows the slow mental decline of Amelia in heartbreaking, nerve-wracking detail and drives the movie.  The very young Wiseman matches Davis with his remarkable performance as a disturbed child.  The Babadook is Wiseman's feature film debut and this will no doubt be the start of the career of an actor to watch.

Overall, The Babadook is already one of the highlights of my movie-going year and marks one of the strongest debuts I've seen since Benh Zeitlin burst out with Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012.  I cannot praise The Babadook enough, as it has a seemingly generic and silly premise that literally smashes every expectation and then some.  Kent has the directorial control and mastery of the horror and drama genres that most filmmakers wish they had.  Go see this at New Directors/New Films now.  It will be released later this year by IFC Midnight who snatched up the rights out of its critically-acclaimed debut at Sundance.

4/4

Friday, March 21, 2014

OF HORSES AND MEN: ND/NF Review


OF HORSES AND MEN
2014, 77 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Of Horses and Men shows tonight at MoMA at 6:15 PM as part of New Directors/New Films and will show on Monday at 6:30 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater.  I will be interviewing writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson on Monday and will publish the interview afterward.

Benedikt Erlingsson's dark comedy/drama Of Horses and Men careens from flat-out hilarious to dramatic and disturbing.  The film was the Icelandic submission to the Academy Awards and tells interconnecting stories about people and their relationship to horses.  I've never quite seen anything like Of Horses and Men.  It's deadpan (and sometimes racy) humor mixed with grisly violence make this a potent treat.  Erlingsson's use of humor and grisly violence isn't like Martin McDonagh or Quentin Tarantino's use of this mixture because the violence here is against animals and hits hard.

Utilizing the natural beauty of Iceland to ironic effect, Erlingsson frequently sets shocking scenes against this serene backdrop, making the matters at hand much more horrifying.  Erlingsson's control over the contrasting tones of the film is very impressive, especially when considering that this is his feature film debut.  In a lesser filmmaker's hands, the film would be tonally uneven and the humor would simply be too dark.  Erlingsson seems to know when to pull back on the darkness so as not to make it overwhelming.

There's not a lot more to say about this movie other than I really enjoyed it.  Of Horses and Men is a highly unusual experience, but again, if you have an offbeat, dark sense of humor, this movie will definitely be for you - life, love, and death are intermixed, sometimes to bizarre effect.  However, what shines through above the inhumanity is the humanity that Erlingsson shows his characters.  Erlingsson treats the horses as he does the humans - with respect and love.  He also pokes fun at all of his characters because he realizes their ridiculousness.  Of Horses and Men is a film of contrasting styles and tones, but that's what makes it such an impressive piece of work.

3.5/4

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE Review


Alejandro Jodorowsky
Photo by David Cavallo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE
2014, 90 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violent and sexual images and drug references

Review by Joshua Handler

I have now seen Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune twice.  It is a delightfully mad film about the making and unmaking of Alejandro Jodorowsky's version of Dune.  I wrote the following about the film in my interview with Pavich: 
By the mid-1970s, legendary cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had already made two hits: El Topo and The Holy Mountain.  Because The Holy Mountain, in particular, was such a big success, producer Michel Seydoux decided to give Jodorowsky carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted to make next.  Jodorowsky decided on Dune, Frank Herbert's notoriously dense sci-fi epic, even though he'd never read it.  The film was to star, among others, Jodorowsky's son, Brontis, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and Orson Welles.  It had the most incredible team of designers and technicians around.  But, it never got made.  However, through its wide-spread influence, it changed the face of science fiction cinema.  
Pavich's film is as successful as it is for many reasons, one of which is Jodorowsky himself.  Alejandro Jodorowsky is the star of the movie.  He is shown in all of his madness and passion and is the driving force behind the narrative.  Jodorowsky's presence is strong.  His enormous ego and natural magnetism make it impossible to turn away from him.

The decision to animate Jean "Moebius" Giraud's storyboards from Dune was a brilliant one.  These animated storyboards are likely the closest we will ever come to seeing Jodorowsky's vision of Dune and seeing some sequences come to life is tragically beautiful.  They show us just how mind-blowing Jodorowsky's Dune would have been.  The fact that these sequences will never fully come to life is a shame.

Jodorowsky's Dune is not just a film for Jodorowsky fans.  Fans will certainly love it most, but this would be a great introduction to those unfamiliar with Jodorowsky and his work.  His unique personality, the fast pace of the film, and the sheer wackiness of the story told will be more than enough to engage.  Though Jodorowsky's Dune is an excellent piece of entertainment, it is also a profound statement on artistic ambition at the beginning of the blockbuster era.  Jodorowsky's version of Dune wasn't made for the reason that no studio wanted to work with Jodorowsky.  They were likely scared of his ambition and vision.  George Lucas' ambitious, but very mainstream Star Wars was the space opera that was made, and it was a smashing success.  David Lynch made Dune a few years later and it bombed.

Overall, Jodorowsky's Dune is an exhilarating, informative, and crazy documentary that will please just about everyone.  Pavich's film is laser-focused and beautifully-edited, combining animated storyboards and interviews with ease.  I would see this movie for a third time in a heartbeat.

3.5/4

The Most Influential Movie Never Made: An Interview with Frank Pavich, Director of JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

Frank Pavich
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The Most Influential Movie Never Made:
An Interview with Frank Pavich, Director of JODOROWSKY'S DUNE

By Joshua Handler

Frank Pavich's mind-bending, beautifully-rendered documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, about the greatest film never made, opens today in NYC.  I was fortunate enough to sit down with Pavich to chat about the film and the far-reaching influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

A bit of background first: by the mid-1970s, legendary cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had already made two hits: El Topo and The Holy Mountain.  Because The Holy Mountain, in particular, was such a big success, producer Michel Seydoux decided to give Jodorowsky carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted to make next.  Jodorowsky decided on Dune, Frank Herbert's notoriously dense sci-fi epic, even though he'd never read it.  The film was to star, among others, Jodorowsky's son, Brontis, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and Orson Welles.  It had the most incredible team of designers and technicians around.  But, it never got made.  However, through its wide-spread influence, it changed the face of science fiction cinema.

Fast forward to 2011.  Filmmaker Frank Pavich decided that he wanted to make a film about the making and unmaking of Jodorowsky's Dune.  Pavich said he was drawn to "the story itself.  Once you know a little bit about Jodo and his films and then you learn that he was going to do an adaptation of Dune...what the hell is cooler than that?  It's literally an out of this world idea...it just sounded fascinating."

Pavich found Jodorowsky through the Internet.  "I found him online.  I just found him," Pavich says even now with disbelief.  "It's interesting to wake up and see an unread email from Alejandro Jodorowsky."  Pavich then flew to Paris to visit Jodorowsky's home.  "Oh I have to go to Paris and go to Alejandro Jodorowsky's house!  Oh poor me," joked Pavich about his first visit.  Jodorowsky agreed to be the film's main subject because "[h]e felt that I'd tell the story well and I'd tell it with respect," says Pavich proudly.

Production on Jodorowsky's Dune began in February 2011 and continued on into 2013.  Once Pavich secured Jodorowsky for interviews, everyone else involved in Jodorowsky's production of Dune agreed to be interviewed because of their admiration for Jodorowsky.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn was in middle of the promo tour for Drive, yet he emailed Pavich back immediately about being interviewed for Jodorowsky's Dune because of his love and respect for Jodorowsky.  Refn is friends with Jodorowsky and has been heavily influenced by his work.  Refn is also the only one to have "seen" Jodorowsky's version of Dune.  While Jodorowsky's version of Dune was never produced (David Lynch's was, a few years later), Jodorowsky, along with artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud, storyboarded the entire film and published it in a book, of which only a few copies exist.  Jodorowsky invited Refn to his house one evening and showed him the book.  He brought the unmade film to life for Refn.  According to Pavich, "Once [Jodorowsky]...opens [the book], he becomes...a little kid almost.  He keeps saying 'look what I invented,' and he did.  The book is full of cinematic inventions...[Jodo's] the best."

The cinematic inventions of Jodorowsky's Dune changed the industry.  "Let's say that there's another timeline and let's say this timeline is where Jodo completes his film and it ends up on the big screen...and let's say [it's] a huge smashing success...what would that mean for the studios?  Would they look at bizarre, auteur-driven, fantastical, out-there films to be worthwhile and financially viable?  Would we have seen more films like that - more intellectual films, larger-budgeted films directed by people with really unique visions?  And if so, what would the big movies be every summer?

"Let's say there's another timeline where Jodo makes his Dune before George Lucas [makes Star Wars]...and Jodorowsky's Dune is a huge failure...[A]t that same time, you have George Lucas and his guys working on Star Wars at 20th Century Fox.  Fox was not behind Star Wars.  If Jodo's sci-fi space opera had failed, the other sci-fi space opera that was being made at the same time definitely would have been cancelled...and then for better or for worse, we don't have Star Wars.  Where does that bring us then to today?  Do we have franchises?  No matter what happens...the world is a different place."  Pavich also mentioned that without Dune, there's no Alien.  Without Alien, there's no Ridley Scott or David Fincher, which means no Blade Runner, no Fight Club, no The Social Network.

The story beyond the movie has a happy ending.  Jodorowsky's Dune premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, along with Jodorowsky's own film, The Dance of Reality, and Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, which is dedicated to Jodorowsky.  Jodorowsky attended the premiere of Jodorowsky's Dune at Cannes.  Pavich was "terrified" to show Jodorowsky the film.  "So what did you think?" Pavich asked Jodorowsky when the film ended.  "It's perfect," he replied, tears streaming down his face.  I sincerely hope you enjoy Jodorowsky's Dune as much as Jodorowsky himself.  It's an excellent film.  My full review will be published later today.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

GEORGE WASHINGTON Criterion Blu-ray Review

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
GEORGE WASHINGTON
Criterion Blu-ray Review
2000, 90 minuted
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

David Gordon Green's George Washington is a beautiful little film that was a clear indicator that Green would go on to have a remarkable career both in and out of Hollywood.  Like his 2013 film Prince Avalanche, George Washington captures small moments of humanity that bring the film to life.  George Washington tells the story of a group of teens living in a depressed North Carolina town and how they cope with a tragedy over the summer.

The two most striking aspects of George Washington are the acting by the cast of non-professional actors and the cinematography by Tim Orr.  There are no performances that can be singled out for greatness because they are universally excellent.  In a cast reunion special feature included on the disc, many cast members said that there were quite a few scenes that had completely improvised dialogue.  This explains why almost all of the dialogue sounds natural.  Watching George Washington, I felt like a fly on the wall, watching the characters' lives play out.

Tim Orr's naturalistic, heat-drenched cinematography gives the movie a look, a feeling that feels like running around in the late-afternoon sun in late summer.  The warm colors of the images combined with the new high-definition digital transfer on the Blu-ray makes this really fantastic to look at.  The colors are vibrant and crisp and the texture of the images pop.

George Washington has a central narrative but it isn't as if this is a story of twists and turns.  It is a film about images and feelings.  The movie captures a time and a place in exquisite detail.  The texture with which Green and Orr imbue this film with gives George Washington a magical realist feeling, not unlike that of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  There is nothing fantastical about George Washington, but the sense of wonder and decay that it simultaneously captures is striking.

The new Blu-ray includes three of David Gordon Green's student short films that I did not view, but also includes a theatrical trailer, a deleted scene (tedious), and cast reunion featurette that is too long but lends some interesting insight into the making of the film.

Overall, George Washington is a film that shows the work of a filmmaker who has gone on to make many memorable movies including Prince Avalanche and Pineapple Express.  In both films, the characters and little moments are what make them distinct and entertaining.  Criterion's new Blu-ray of the film looks amazing, as always, and for Green fans, this may not be a must-buy, but is certainly a must-watch.  Anyone looking for a great drama should take 90 minutes and view this movie.

Film: 3.5/4
Special Features: 2/4
Blu-ray Image Quality: 3.5/4
Overall: Not a must-buy, but well worth viewing

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What to See at New Directors/New Films


What To See At New Directors/New Films 2014
By Joshua Handler

New Directors/New Films is an annual film festival held at Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA that features the best films from new directors.  This year features films hot off of award-winning runs at Sundance, Cannes, Locarno, SXSW, etc.  The following four below come with very high recommendations.  I cannot wait to see what else this festival has to offer.  For my money, this is one of the best fests held in NYC.

Full reviews of each of these films, and others, will be published soon.

THE BABADOOK (Dir. Jennifer Kent) - Sundance hit The Babadook comes with my highest recommendation.  Rarely are horror and drama so brilliantly executed and mixed as they are in The Babadook, a film about a single mother who lives with her troubled son and unwittingly lets an evil force into her house.  This, however, is a gross reduction of a psychologically potent, emotionally involving, and flat-out terrifying film.  The bottom line: go see it immediately.  Showing 3/22 at FSLC, 3/23 at MoMA.

THE DOUBLE (Dir. Richard Ayoade) - The Double is a cross between Brazil and Fight Club, a perfectly insane black comedy about an introverted man (Jesse Eisenberg) who meets his double (Eisenberg again) who is his opposite.  An energetic, clever film based on a Dostoyevsky work, this is sure to please those looking for something dark, funny, and thought-provoking.  Showing 3/24 at FSLC, 3/29 at MoMA.

OF HORSES AND MEN (Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson) - Another extremely dark comedy, Of Horses and Men is best for the adventurous movie-goer.  The movie tells interconnected stories about the relationship between horses and people and balances deadpan comedy and dark drama very well.  Showing 3/22 at MoMA, 3/24 at FSLC.  

TO KILL A MAN (Dir. Alejandro Fernández Almendras) - Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance this year, Alejandro Fernández Almendras' tense, morally complex film tells the story of a man who is pushed to the breaking point by local thugs.  As beautifully shot as it is well-written, this movie refuses to give any easy answers.  Showing 3/20 at FSLC, 3/23 at MoMA.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

ERNEST & CÉLESTINE Review

Courtesy of GKids
ERNEST & CÉLESTINE
2014, 80 minutes
Rated PG for some scary moments

Review by Joshua Handler

An Oscar-nominee for Best Animated Feature Film, Ernest & Célestine is the best animated feature film I've seen in a long time.  I don't see a lot of animated films per year (not for lack of interest, but for lack of good choices), but when I find one that I love, it becomes a new favorite.  A short, sweet delight with a light sense of humor and beautiful animation, Ernest & Célestine is, to use a cliched phrase sincerely, nothing short of a miracle.  The film tells the story of Célestine, a mouse who lives underground with the mouse community, but doesn't fit in.  The mice are taught to fear the bears that live above ground, especially a ruthless one called "the big bad bear".  One day, Célestine goes above ground and befriends a lonely bear, Ernest.  

A lot of what makes Ernest & Célestine so extraordinary is how sincere and sweet it is.  Ernest and Célestine are the ultimate odd couple with two endearing personalities.  There is nothing romantic between them.  They're just friends, which makes everything so much more refreshing and special.  So much of what makes these characters wonderful are their voices.  Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men) voices Ernest and Pauline Brunner voices Célestine and they ooze charm, Wilson especially.  His comedic timing is spot-on and the animation that complements the moments of comedy bring it to glorious life.

The hand-drawn animation gives the film a homemade, loving quality that rarely shows in computer-animated films.  Computer-animated films frequently feel colder and less human than hand-drawn ones (the best of Pixar's movies are exceptions).  When looking at recent hand-drawn films like Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises and Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, there is a distinctness to the style.  These films look like works of art and look as if their creators put their hearts and souls into them.  Ernest & Célestine epitomizes what I love about hand-drawn animation.

The humor in Ernest & Célestine somehow always works.  I cannot explain why I laughed at nearly every joke or moment of humor, but I did.  The characters and the film itself have such a joie de vivre, making everything a pleasure to watch.

Overall, Ernest & Célestine is a masterpiece of animation and one that I will certainly revisit many times in the years to come.  While I have no doubt that the American dub of the film is excellent (the voice cast is top-notch), I would recommend opting for the original French version subtitled in English if you have the option.  There's nothing to me like viewing a film in its original language.  I cannot recommend Ernest & Célestine enough and recommend that you see it at your earliest convenience.  It will brighten your day.

4/4

Thursday, March 13, 2014

LE WEEK-END Review


Nick Burrows (Jim Broadbent) and Meg Burrows (Lindsay Duncan) in LE WEEK-END. 
Courtesy of Music Box Films
LE WEEK-END
2013, 95 minutes
Rated for language and some sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler


The following is a re-post of my original New York Film Festival review from October 4, 2013.

Roger Michell's (VenusNotting HillLe Week-End is a small gem about a British couple, Nick and Meg (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, respectively), who travels to Paris on their 30th anniversary to save their marriage.  Jeff Goldblum co-stars and the gorgeous cinematography was done by Nathalie Durand.

Of any film at NYFF this year, this was the most unexpected in terms of my enjoyment level.  Le Week-End had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and completely passed under the radar with films like 12 Years a Slave and Prisoners stealing the spotlight.  Hell, I only saw this film because it was screening at a good time and I love the actors and writer that worked on it.  I am thrilled I saw Le Week-End, as it is the work of a cast and crew on top of their game.  Much of the film's credit goes to Broadbent, Duncan, and Goldblum who all give warm performances that perfectly capture their characters' idiosyncrasies.

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan have such natural chemistry that it is hard to believe that they haven't actually been married for 30 years.  They seem to know each other's every move and seem to be able to finish each other's sentences.  Their performances are so full of love and honesty that it is hard not to fall in love with them, flaws and all.  Jeff Goldblum is strong as Nick's friend, Morgan, who Nick and Meg bump into while in Paris.  Morgan is a rich, very odd man and Goldblum captures him perfectly.

Hanif Kureishi's screenplay is a wonder.  While it falls into somewhat easy comedy in the finale, what comes before is so moving and so honest that it is very easy to forgive any missteps.  Kureishi's dialogue is never anything less than believable.  Even a long, emotional speech in the film's climax comes across as genuine thanks to Kureishi's easy way with honest dialogue (and the phenomenal acting).  Kureishi's script works especially well because it pays attention to the small moments and details.  Those moments are the ones that define Nick and Meg.  They are the ones that show the most pain or the ones that show the wonder of being in a committed relationship; they add depth and believability to the characters.  Michell's understated direction complements Kureishi's script and allows it and the actors to shine above anything else.

Overall, Le Week-End is a really special deceptively simple little film.  It is the work of a director, a writer, and three actors who, with their combined talents and years of experience, pull off a little miracle.  Le Week-End will likely play best with older audiences, yet younger adult audiences will surely connect with many parts of this film.  The experience of marriage and the struggles and wonders that come with it are universal and Le Week-End will likely resonate across age groups for that reason.

3.5/4

Monday, March 10, 2014

MOOD INDIGO Review: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Audrey Tautou (left) and Romain Duris (right) in Michel Gondry's MOOD INDIGO
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

MOOD INDIGO
(L'ÉCUME DES JOURS)
2014, 95 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Michel Gondry was in attendence for a post-screening Q&A for this screening of Mood Indigo.  Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is a collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFC Center, and BAMcinématek and runs through March 16.


Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo is an exhilarating experience brimming with life, love, and an immense amount of imagination.  The first hour of Indigo is breathless, moving at an insanely fast pace and stuffed with delightful visuals and inventions that only Gondry could create.  The film's second half is no less compelling, but is darker and more melancholic.

Mood Indigo tells the story of the romance between Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou).  On their wedding night, something floats into Chloé's mouth while she's asleep and she grows a water lily in her lung, which threatens her life.

With Mood Indigo, Gondry goes back to what he does best: being a visionary.  While the films I've seen that he's created in between (Be Kind, Rewind and The We and the I) have been plenty imaginative, they lack the craziness and passion of Eternal Sunshine and Mood Indigo.  Indigo is like a cross between a Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton film with its original inventions and extensive use of stop-motion animation.  The fast pace of the first part of Mood Indigo has a sense of discovery found in very few films.  In every scene, Gondry offers up something new, something exciting that furthers the realization of the world he's creating.  Because of this, watching Mood Indigo reminded me of the first time I saw Her; there were new discoveries and strokes of genius around every corner in both films.

Audrey Tautou, Romain Duris, and Omar Sy head up the phenomenal cast for the film.  Duris and Tautou's chemistry is strong and their abundant energy lights up the screen.  Sy (best-known for his leading role in The Intouchables) is a magnetic screen presence who strengthens every scene he's in.  

Gondry's homemade visual effects (reminiscent of those that Terry Gilliam used in Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and stop-motion animation make each scene a wonder to watch and the breakneck pace of the editing makes this film feel like a whirlwind.  While it wasn't always easy to follow Mood Indigo, that certainly didn't detract, as I enjoyed myself throughout.

Overall, Mood Indigo is a wondrous film that will prove to be divisive, but Gondry and fantasy fans will fall in love with it.  I loved every single minute.  While there may be some moments that don't work and the film isn't as emotionally resonant as I wish it was, Mood Indigo is always interesting, which is more than I can say for many films I watch.  Of the many 2014 releases I've seen, this is certainly around the top.  It is so rare to see a film directed by a person with as much creative freedom and artistic vision as Gondry, and getting to see that vision onscreen is a unique pleasure.  This cut of Mood Indigo was cut by nearly 30 minutes for international release after many complaints that the film was too long.  I'm very curious to see the original cut because this one is simply fantastic (and is yet another fantastic acquisition by Drafthouse Films).

4/4