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Monday, February 24, 2014

FANTASTIC MR. FOX Criterion Review

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Criterion Review
2009, 87 minutes
Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor

Review by Joshua Handler

Note: Due to time, I was unable to view the film with audio commentary and was unable to view the hour-long documentary "Fantastic Mr. Dahl" included on this disc.  Otherwise, everything else was viewed.

Wes Anderson's meticulously-made Fantastic Mr. Fox is an odd beast.  It is a film based on a children's book by Roald Dahl, yet the film itself really isn't geared towards children.  Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) throw in some of their usual themes: marital dysfunction, teenage angst, and the troubles with growing older.  In fact, Fantastic Mr. Fox really is about facing middle age and celebrating differences.  It is about trying to make something of your life and trying to do what you love.

Mr. Fox (the voice of George Clooney) loves to steal food for himself and his family.  He can't help it - he's a fox and does it because he loves it and needs to survive.  However, after a near-death experience in his younger days, he promises his wife (the voice of Meryl Streep) that he'd stop stealing.  Years later, he has a family, is now a journalist, and he feels himself getting older.  The joie de vivre is gone.  One day, though, Mr. Fox decides to do one last job to get that spark back, but that one job isn't enough to satisfy his need to steal.

The themes dealt with in Fox aren't kid-relatable, but they are universal themes that nearly all adults or even teens can relate to to some degree.  Anyone can look at the gorgeous stop-motion animation, the warmly-colored sets, and the deliberate camera moves, but if you look below the shining surface, you can find a startling amount of insight, humanity, and even warmth.

Because this is a Wes Anderson film, all of the characters have their quirks and are all the more lovable because of them.  Embracing differences is a theme of many animated films, but rarely is that theme explored so humanly as it is here.  Every animal character feels like a human.  They're all given human qualities and they are always treated like humans, making them instantly relatable.

Many people claim that Anderson's films are style over substance with little humanity, but I see him as a humanist.  No director celebrates differences and the different stages of life like Wes Anderson.  Moonrise Kingdom celebrated the joy of being young and being in love.  All of the production design was in service of the themes and characters.  The world was designed to look like how the kids at the film's center see the it.  The Darjeeling Limited (a highly underrated film) is a beautiful exploration of brotherhood and the period before middle age.  Rushmore is a celebration of youth and teenage rebellion, and The Royal Tenenbaums is about the generations interacting.  And, as mentioned, Fox is about middle age and the mid-life crisis.

The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Fantastic Mr. Fox has a slew of special features including a version of the film told entirely through storyboards and the actors' voices.  I watched a bit of this and can say that it is very interesting, but for die-hards only.  Additionally, there are a lot of featurettes on the making of the film.  Watching how the sets were designed and the puppets were made gave me an even deeper appreciation for the film.  My favorite special feature on this disc is a discussion and analysis of the film by two young kids.  Their answers to the discussion questions are occasionally inventive and always amusing.  Their perspective is so different from mine or most of yours so watching them analyze the film is fascinating and very funny.  What's most interesting, though, is their speaking patterns and how through those, one can trace their thought processes.

Overall, Criterion's edition of Fantastic Mr. Fox is fantastic, as all of their releases are.  Fox is a deceptively simple film that, while not my favorite of Anderson's, is certainly an impressive accomplishment and a meaningful piece of storytelling.

Film: 3.5/4
Special Features: 4/4
Overall: Well-worth buying

THE NOTEBOOK Review: Oscar Submission Series

Photo courtesy of Beta Cinema
2013, 109 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.

Review by Joshua Handler

János Szász's The Notebook was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and has no relation to the 2004 film of the same name.  It is a crime that The Notebook wasn't nominated for the Oscar.  The film tells the story of two unnamed boys (András Gyémánt and Lázló Gyémánt) who are brought to the Hungarian countryside to live with their brutal grandmother (Piroska Molnár) during World War II.  As the violence and inhumanity begin to pervade their daily lives, the twins begin to do exercises to desensitize themselves to the darkness around them in order to survive.

The Notebook is as original a vision as they come.  There have been numerous films that depict wars from children's point of views, but few come close to capturing something this original.  The unnamed children in The Notebook are largely affectless, showing very little emotion.  They are each other's entire lives - two parts of one whole.  World War II and life with their grandmother is shown through their eyes as an exercise of sorts.  There is nothing that can't be overcome through exercises.  For example, to conquer pain, the boys beat each other to get used to any beating they receive.  Szász makes sure that we develop no emotional connection to anyone in the film, creating a cold piece of work, mirroring the mindset of the twins.  Oscar-nominee Christian Berger's crisp, carefully composed shots complement the lack of emotion, and they add a layer of beauty in a film full of horror.

Children have a need to take control of their lives and almost always manage to do so, even when adults around them can't.  The Notebook shows the twins taking control of every aspect of their lives.  The film itself is a testament to the resilience of children in the face of great evil.  During World War II, entire countries fell due to weakness and fear.  In a short period of time, the twins conquered what many countries failed to conquer: fear of pain, death, and evil.  Had the twins been slightly older, they would certainly have joined the resistance.

Overall, The Notebook is an unforgettable piece of cinema, featuring committed performances (the Gyémánts give two of the most complex child performances ever), strong direction, eye-popping cinematography, and an ending that nears perfection.  Many films lose much of their impact at the end, but not The Notebook.  If anything, the tense, unpredictable final scene gives the movie the punch that it builds up to.  János Szász has created one of the greatest and most unique World War II films in history and I can only hope this masterpiece finds success when Sony Pictures Classics releases it later this year.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

An Interview with the Team Behind LUCKY BASTARD

Robert Nathan (Director, Co-Writer, Executive Producer), Lukas Kendall (Co-Writer, Executive Producer) and Jim Wynorski (Producer, Unit Production Manager).
Photo courtesy of CAVU Pictures
An Interview with the Team Behind 
By Joshua Handler

In honor of the release of their new film Lucky Bastard, I sat down to talk with executive producer, co-writer, and director Robert Nathan, and executive producer, co-writer Lukas Kendall.  Lucky Bastard tells the story of Mike, a porn producer, and Ashley, a porn actress, who invite a fan in to have sex with Ashley after an online competition.  Things don't go well.  Lucky Bastard is currently in theaters.  The following excerpts of the interview have been edited for readability:

According to Lukas Kendall, executive producer/writer of Lucky Bastard, websites like the ones advertised in the film actually exist; ones where fans have sex with porn stars.  "I thought this is so sleazy and at some point I got the idea: what if that turned into...a crime?  [Y]ou excuse for the found footage to exist, which is what I always hate the most about found footage," said Kendall.  Nathan immediately took to the idea and what they could say about our culture.

Nathan was struck by how "completely ordinary" the guys participating in the videos were.  "But you then think about them and think, what kind of a person would say, 'I'd like to have sex with a porn star, I'd like to have it recorded, and I'd it to be on the Internet'?"

The film was cast in three weeks.  Don McManus didn't audition for the role of Mike.  Instead, he met with the filmmakers over lunch and a connection was immediately made.  "The minute we met him, you could feel the character coming out of him, he understood it so well that there wasn't even a question that this actor was the guy to do it," said Nathan.  Nathan echoed what Ti West said about directing in his Q&A after The Sacrament: cast the movie right and you have to worry about little else.

According to Kendall, the actors were just recognizable enough for people to know that this wasn't actually real found footage.  Yet, as Nathan said, they're not THAT well-known so people won't be taken out of the movie.  "From the beginning we've said it's a movie," said Kendall.  Nathan didn't think it was necessary to try to tell the audience it was real.  As I said in my review, the acting is so good that I forgot I was watching a movie half way through anyway.  

Nathan said that the illusion of found footage movies has never worked for him.  Legendary low-budget producer Jim Wynorski and Kendall have been friends for years.  Wynorski produced Lucky Bastard.  The film was shot in 10 days ("We shot a movie on a television schedule," said Nathan) with a skeleton crew, and "...the entire crew came from Jim Wynorski," said Kendall.  When discussing how it was possible to shoot a large amount of script pages in a single day, Nathan explained that "[t]his is a movie about people talking" which doesn't take half as much time as a film with a large amount of special effects.

To Kendall and Nathan, Lucky Bastard was never just an exploitation film.  Kendall said that "We figured out an idea for a film that could be a exploitation film while also commenting on exploitation."  For them, Lucky Bastard isn't even a found-footage movie; "It's a documentary that...they found the footage of."

As with any film that deals with exploitation, the film has inspired a myriad of audience reactions.  The two say that people "see what [they] want to see."  According to Kendall, some couldn't look past the sex and violence.  "Some people say, 'I don't know why they went so far.'  Other people say, 'why didn't they go far enough?'  If [audiences are] smart, they're gonna think, 'Why would anyone want to watch any duration of this [sex and violence] so why are they making this?'  Well, because someone wants to watch it.  Once you start asking those questions then you're actually analyzing a culture and you become like that David Foster Wallace speech.  It's [two] fish swimming in water, so one fish says to the other, 'What's water'.  You don't know what we're in until something snaps you out of it." 

When people complain that the fake rape at the beginning goes on too long, Nathan adds, "we're trying to remind the audience of something and not just shock them.  We're trying to remind them of something they don't want to know.  That this culture makes a lot of rape pornography.  The culture is soaked in it, and we run away from the truth if we pretend it doesn't exist.  What does that say about the culture?  That people are entertained by rape?  We're blinded by how disturbing pornography actually is."  Nathan adds, "[Pornography] is the ultimate hypocrisy.  Everyone disapproves of it, but hundreds of millions of dollars of it are sold every year.  It's...'I hate all the people who make it because they're bad people but I'll forget they're bad people when I go and buy it.'  It is the microcosm of hypocrisy in America."

One of the most amazing of Lucky Bastard's accomplishments is its ability to show the porn actors and creators as real people.  "We will not let you, as filmmakers, feel superior to these people," states Nathan.  "You want to feel superior to them because you think they're bad people because they make pornography.  Guess what, you're no better than they are.  They're just making a living like you."  Lucky Bastard never judges its characters and never eroticizes the sex. "Pornography isn't sexy.  Making it isn't sexy, it's a job.  [A]ll of the sex would not be about sex, it would be kind of funny...because the performers are bored.  It's like, 'Can I do this scene and go home?'  My kids are waiting, let's just get the sex out of the way because I've got to make a living today.  So the sex is purposefully not played for eroticism."  In a similar manner, the violence in the film isn't glorified because Nathan is disgusted by the amount of violence shown in movies with no suffering depicted.  If the violence was to be shown in the film, it would show the resulting suffering.  Every act of violence in Lucky Bastard is shown as something horrific, but it is always "pedestrian."

In addition to being horrified with the violence in films, Nathan is disgusted with another American obsession: humiliation.  "I could not watch the first five episodes of American Idol.  Here we have people who can't sing, who are an embarrassment, and we make fun of them in front of the entire country.  To me that's the sign of a sick culture.  This is unhealthy.  It does not happen in Europe.  It's an American product.  If you look at all the talent shows in Europe, they don't start off with untalented people.  The whole undertone of the picture is 'we're gonna make fun of this guy and we're going to make money off of him.'  If the audience even gets a piece of that and how disturbing that is, then we'll learn something about ourselves; that we like that and we shouldn't."

Many people associate the NC-17 rating with "dirty" movies, but as proven time and again, the films given that rating are never any "dirtier" than R-rated films.  Lucky Bastard is a prime example of that.  The decision to keep the NC-17 rating the movie received was a conscious decision on the filmmakers' part.  Kendall felt that keeping the rating was "the only honest thing to do."  He adds, "People think the NC-17 movie is gonna...melt peoples faces...but then it never happens 'cause its still just a movie."  If you look at Lucky Bastard, nothing is gratuitous.  All of the nudity was discussed with the actors and frontal nudity was only used when completely necessary.

While Lucky Bastard has a lot stacked against it, Kendall believes that the film will be okay in the long run.  He says, "[Pornography]...has one function: masturbation.  And masturbation makes everyone uncomfortable.  It's human and that reality...will make people not buy tickets to our movie, but we don't care because they'll get it on VOD.  The business is changing, the world is changing.  We weren't afraid to be past the cutting edge because we think the culture will catch up to us and we'll be positioned with a serious artistic statement...."  I hope he's correct.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF AN IRON PICKER Review: Oscar Submission Series

Courtesy of New Wave Films
2013, 75 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Danis Tanovic's An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is a fascinating docudrama that was shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.  The film tells the story of Nazif (Nazif Mujic, winner of the Best Actor Award at the Berlinale), a Romani iron picker living in poverty with his wife, Senada (Senada Alimanovic), and two kids in Bosnia.  When Senada falls ill and needs an operation, she and Nazif cannot afford it because they aren't insured, so Nazif tries to do everything he can to come up with the money for the operation.

The brilliance of this film comes in Tanović's decision to shoot the film like a documentary.  The acting is so invisible and the story progresses so naturally that watching Senada's health decline and the family's desperation grow is truly heartbreaking.  This film highlights the struggles that the Romani people face in Bosnia.  It is highly likely that Nazif and Senada are turned away from hospitals simply because they are Romani.  The unpredictability of Senada's health adds a time bomb-like dimension to the film - it is not known whether Senada will live or die until the end of the film.  Episode is as unpredictable as they come, making it that much more compelling.

Above everything already mentioned, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is most impressive for its lack of sentimentality or forcefulness.  Tanović is smart enough to let the story play out and not interfere.

Recently, an article was published in The Hollywood Reporter detailing Nazif Mujic's return to Bosnia after the Berlin Film Festival and his subsequent departure.  Mujic, according to the article, played himself in the film and is now seeking political asylum in Germany because he feels as if Bosnia betrayed him.  This brings a tragic new dimension to this powerful film that will make me look at it in a very different light the next time I view it.

Overall, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is a beautifully-made, socially-conscious docudrama that should be more widely-known than it is now.  The Romani people are rarely given any positive media attention, so it is good to have a brilliant filmmaker like Tanović shine a positive light on them and highlight their plight.


THE SACRAMENT Review: Film Comment Selects

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
2014, 95 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content including bloody images, language and brief drug use

Review by Joshua Handler

The Sacrament showed as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comments Selects series.  The film will be released on May 1 on VOD and on June 6 in theaters.  

Ti West's latest The Sacrament, is a horrifically disturbing film based on the Jonestown Massacre of 1978.  It was produced by Eli Roth (The Green InfernoHostel) and is extremely well-made, tense, and well-acted.  The film stars a group of fantastic actors including Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, You're Next), Joe Swanberg (You're Next, director of Drinking Buddies), A.J. Bowen (You're Next, The House of the Devil), Kentucker Audley (Sun Don't Shine, V/H/S), and Gene Jones, as the Tim Jones figure, Father.  West was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a post-screening Q&A.

The Sacrament tells the story of three VICE Magazine journalists, Sam, Jake, and Patrick (Bowen, Swanberg, and Audley, respectively) who go to write a story on a group of Americans who left to live at Eden Parish, a secluded area in another country after receiving a troubling letter from Patrick's sister, Caroline, (Seimetz).

What distinguishes The Sacrament from other films of its kind is its commitment to realism.  There's very little that's unrealistic in The Sacrament, and that makes the film all the more chilling.  One example of this is a particularly disturbing, though non-gory, death scene shown in real time with a stationary camera.  That is far more ghastly than anything the torture-porn films could dream up.

The first half of The Sacrament is truly tense.  From the outset, you know something is wrong.  West keeps increasing the tension little by little through small, yet odd occurrences - little hints.  These hints are placed carefully throughout to create a sense of mounting dread.

As mentioned, the acting from all is strong, but it is the performance of Gene Jones as Father that stands out.  Jones' first appearance is during a scene in which Sam interviews Father.  Jones performs with a charisma and slightly demented charm, creating a menacing atmosphere that hangs over the film even when he's offscreen.  This interview scene was 12 pages long and was to be shot in one night (12 pages of script is an enormous amount to shoot in one night).  The crew was anticipating a long night shoot, said West, until Jones came out for his scene and performed the entire thing in 17 minutes without missing a line.

As great as the first three-quarters of The Sacrament are, it loses a bit of steam at the very end.  A final plot point is contrived and alters the entire outcome of the film (you'll know what I mean when you see it).  It also takes some of the realism out of the film, which doesn't ruin the film's impact, but certainly lessens it.  For a film that rides on final impact, this is a blow.  Additionally, there are some moments of humor that work and some that don't because they feel out of place and lighten up the serious tone in distracting ways.

West, as mentioned, was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a Q&A.  During the discussion, he said it's debatable whether The Sacrament is "a horror film or just horrific."  I'd argue that it isn't a horror film.  There's nothing really scary about it.  It's simply a very eerie drama.

When asked about his decision to work with the same team for every movie, West said his cast/crew is like a "theatre troupe".  They make movies together because they like it.  They are fortunate to be making movie after movie so there's no reason to stop, said West.  "Casting is 85% of directing," said West.  This shows the immense amount of faith West puts into his cast and it shows.  They aren't just pawns in his demented game.  The actors portray three-dimensional characters who feel real and drive much of the movie.

Overall, The Sacrament is well worth viewing for its strong direction and performances and its inherently disturbing story.  West is clearly beginning to master his craft, realizing that tension is what drives horror films and thrillers, not gore.  I'd highly recommend giving this one a watch.

(a very high) 3/4

Thursday, February 20, 2014

MONTEREY POP Review: Stranger Than Fiction Docs

The crew of MONTEREY POP
Photo by Joshua Handler
1968, 79 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

D.A. Pennebaker's cinéma vérité documentary Monterey Pop showed as part of thr Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Series at IFC Center with Pennebaker and much of the crew in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.  The film itself is an unforgettable experience to watch.  Shot in 1967 during the Monterey Pop Festival on 16mm film, Monterey Pop is a sometimes electrifying, always entertaining time capsule that features performances by Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, and many others.  The extended Ravi Shankar sequence that closes out the film is nothing short of one of the most astonishing musical sequences I've ever seen on film.  Pennebaker's crew films hands on the sitar and the tabla in close-up showcasing their incredibly fast movements.  When the film cuts to an extended shot of Shankar's feet moving to the beat of his music, they look otherworldly, as do the hands on the tabla.  The otherworldly way in which the hands move make something so ordinary look alien.  Because the sequence is so long, Pennebaker said that he let scenes of the audience applauding run long in order to "come down" from Shankar.

Janis Joplin's sequence is equally mind-blowing.  In films like Pop, these celebrated (and in many cases, dead) performers come back to life.  We feel as if we are there with the camera crew watching this historical event.  It doesn't need to be restated that Joplin's talent was out the roof.  Jimi Hendrix's insane sequence is also one of the more noteworthy.  At the end of it, he sets his guitar on fire.

What's so wonderful about Monterey Pop is that it feels intimate, like a bunch of extremely well-made home videos strung together by a master editor to create an immersive musical experience.  As mentioned, director D.A. Pennebaker and cinematographer Albert Maysles (the legendary documentarian who directed Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens), along with much of the crew were on hand for a Q&A.

At the time that Pennebaker was asked to make Monterey Pop, he said he didn't know much about music, but after seeing The Endless Summer, he decided that California looked appealing so he and a crew went out to shoot a documentary on the Monterey Pop Festival with homemade cameras.  Many crew members never went to film school and had no experience making films.  They shot based on gut reactions.  As Pennebaker said, "People shot whatever the fuck they wanted to."

In a cut of the film, there was a sequence of Electric Flag playing.  Truman Capote saw the sequence and called it "tacky."  "What do you know about tacky?" asked Pennebaker.  Pennebaker took out the sequence.  He doesn't know why it didn't feel right (he liked the sequence itself), but he never put it back in.

Finally, a fun fact.  Pennebaker said that they were talking about submitting Monterey Pop for "the Oscar".  When he found out it'd be for Best Documentary, he pulled it so that it wouldn't be considered.  Why?  Because at that time, no one wanted documentaries and no one wanted to show them.

Overall, Monterey Pop is a highly enjoyable and very important film.  It also made way for bigger, more ambitious concert films like Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.  Looking at Monterey Pop now is fascinating because it is like peering through a window in time.  At the same time, many sequences made me feel as if I was at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.  This is a great film that features classic music, energetic musical performances, and some incredible editing and is highly recommended to all music and doc lovers.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Alfonso Cuarón Q&A at FSLC

Alfonso Cuarón at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last Thursday
Photo by Joshua Handler
 By Joshua Handler

Alfonso Cuarón's magnificent Best Picture-nominee Gravity may not be the strongest of the nine nominees, but it is a masterful piece of filmmaking in its own right from a visionary director.  I have now seen Gravity three times.  Each time, the finale leaves me sitting in my seat, breath held, hands gripping my armrests.  Each time, the visuals give me chills.  And each time, I get emotional watching the last part.  Yes, Gravity has its fair share of screenplay issues, but it is sincere and as an experience, it is unbeatable.  Bullock is powerful and sitting through the film's 91 minutes is like riding a roller coaster.  Critics will call any movie a "roller coaster", but this one actually is.  Cuarón and his team have created an unforgettable piece of cinema, and I was lucky enough to be at a screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center where Cuarón was Skyped in for a Q&A.  He was supposed to be at the Film Society in person, but the snowy NYC weather didn't allow him to come.

Cuarón said that he originally envisioned Gravity as a small film, an intimate story of a woman dealing with grief.  The small film aspect didn't stay for long when Cuarón realized that this project would be a massive undertaking.  Before the idea for Gravity came about, Cuarón was prepping a small road movie with Charlotte Gainsbourg, but that fell through with the 2008 economic crash.

To make it seem as if Bullock was in space (blood doesn't rush to the head in space), Bullock was kept upright while LED light panels and screens circled around her instead of her actually spinning around.  The spinning LED panels were director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki's idea.  Lubezki was at a Peter Gabriel concert and saw the moving LED panels which gave him the inspiration.

Gravity took years to make - 2.5 years to develop the technology and 2 more years to complete the film.  Filming took 11 weeks one summer and a few more weeks the following summer, said Cuarón.  Sandra Bullock trained for five months to prepare for her emotionally and physically demanding role.

With Gravity, Cuarón wanted to explore the theme of adversity and used Steven Spielberg's Duel and Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (easily one of the greatest films of all time) as inspiration.

This Skype Q&A was led by Film Comment's editor Gavin Smith.  Cuarón's insight into the film was fascinating, as was his sense of humor.  When one audience member brought up scientific holes in the film, Cuarón joked, "It's a movie!"  And a damn good one at that.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Courtesy of CAVU Pictures

2014, 94 minutes
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Robert Nathan’s Lucky Bastard is one of the best found footage movies I’ve seen in ages because it actually feels real.  From the acting to the writing to the cinematography, most everything was convincing.  The film starts with police investigating the aftermath of a gruesome group of murders and then goes back to tell the story of how those murders happened.  Ashley Saint (Betsey Rue) is a porn star who works for Mike (Don McManus).  Mike decides to hold a contest to find a new guy for a new “Lucky Bastard” video in a which fan gets to have sex with Ashley.  They pick Dave (Jay Paulson), a nice but slightly odd man.  As Dave continues to spend time with the crew waiting for his big scene, things start to turn hostile.

Rue, McManus, and Paulson all turn in natural performances.  Found footage films are frequently hurt by poor acting and usually aren’t helped by shoddy screenplays.  However, Lukas Kendall’s screenplay for the film isn’t that far-fetched and features realistic dialogue.  The conversations that happen between characters feel so real that I actually forgot I was watching a movie for a good portion of Lucky Bastard.

Though this film features an abundance of sex, it isn’t exploitative.  Lucky Bastard’s nonchalant treatment of the sex is refreshing.  In these peoples’ worlds, it’s part of everyday life.  The disturbing violence of the last 30 minutes isn’t exploitative per se, but it does go overboard.  It occasionally looks extremely fake too (I assume the budget was extremely low so that might explain the fakeness). 

When things go awry in the last third of Lucky Bastard, it becomes intense.  Frequently found footage movies fizzle at the end, but this one doesn’t.  While the last third isn’t quite as interesting as what came before, it is still quite good and an impressive piece of directing.

Overall, Lucky Bastard is an entertaining, disturbing, and well-made look at a taboo subject.  I love films that come out of nowhere.  I’ll admit, I had never heard of Lucky Bastard before looking at what movies were coming soon to theaters on Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks ago.  The 100% score it then had combined with the NC-17 rating intrigued me, and I’m thrilled I got the opportunity to see this film.  The New York premiere will be held this weekend at Cinema Village where the crew will be introducing the film and conducting Q&As throughout the weekend.  This is the film no one knows about but should - a hidden gem.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

THE LONG DAY CLOSES Criterion Review

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Criterion DVD Review
1992, 85 minutes
Not rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes is reality filtered through memory and the magic of the camera lens.  A magnificent, symphonic piece of filmmaking if there ever was one, The Long Day Closes, is a virtually plotless look through Davies' memories of his adolescence in Liverpool, England.  Through sound clips of classic films, music of the 1950s, and Michael Coulter's hazy cinematography, the Liverpool of Davies' childhood comes to life.

This film looks like the result of someone's childhood memories being projected directly from brain to screen.  The Long Day Closes is a truly magnificent vision of a bygone era featuring strong performances and rich production design by Christopher Hobbs.  What astounds me about Davies' films is the meticulous, yet natural way in which they are constructed.  Each fade, cut, and sequence fits beautifully into the next one, creating a movie that is pure cinema.

Davies explores what could be called the honeymoon period of his life in The Long Day Closes.  In an insightful interview with Davies on the disc, he talks about his abusive father and the weight that lifted on his family after his death.  Following the death was a period of happiness, depicted in this film.

Davies shows an obvious reverence towards this period of his life in this film, yet he also shows the dark side.  He was bullied and was beginning to discover his homosexuality.  This caused anguish in Davies' life, but in the movie, he doesn't let those aspects overshadow the more wondrous aspects of his childhood.  In one of the most magical sequences of the film, the young Davies character, Bud (Leigh McCormack), goes to the movies.  He sits in the seat in the very front of the balcony, head on his hands with a look of bliss on his face.  The camera moves down and just before it goes below the balcony, the image fades into an out-of-focus shot of what looks like a ferris wheel as the exuberant music swells  before breaking into a song of merriment and fun as a carnival is introduced to us.  Lovely, vivid sequences like these are littered throughout the movie, making it a complete pleasure to watch.

Included on the disc is a 1992 episode of The South Bank Show, a British TV show that featured an interview with Terence Davies along with behind-the-scenes footage of filming The Long Day Closes and interviews with actor Leigh McCormack and production designer Christopher Hobbs.  In a very open interview, the surprisingly funny Davies gives deeper insight into his childhood.  I don't want to give a point-by-point account of the episode because there would be no point in you watching if I detailed the entire thing here.  Additionally, there is a new 20-minute interview with Christopher Hobbs.  Many of us rarely think about the importance of the production designer, but they are invaluable to a film like The Long Day Closes.  Listening to Hobbs talk about the enormous amount of craft that went into designing the production gave me a new appreciation for production designers' work.  Also included is an interesting interview with former head of the BFI Production Board and executive producer of The Long Day Closes, Colin MacCabe.  The BFI Production Board funded Davies' first films.  Finally, there is an audio commentary by Davies and Coulter that I did not get a chance to listen to, however, given what a personal project this film was, I have no doubt that it is nothing less than riveting.

Overall, The Long Day Closes is a unique piece of filmmaking from one of the most distinctive voices in cinema today.  With The Long Day Closes and subsequent films like The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has established himself as a filmmaker who has an unmatched ability to connect with and recreate his past.  The Long Day Closes is a loving film and one that should be seen by all.  This Criterion edition looks beautiful and, while the film won't be for everyone, it should be seen by fans of more meditative cinema and those looking for something a bit different.

Film: 3.5/4
Special Features: 3.5/4
Overall: Not worth a blind-buy, but if you're a fan, this is a must-have


Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
DVD Review
2013, 98 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, language and sexual content

Review by Joshua Handler

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine is by far his darkest film in years and it is also one of his most complex character studies featuring a career-best performance from Cate Blanchett who sizzles as Jasmine, a Blanche DuBois-type who is moves with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins in a moving performance), in San Francisco after her perfect life in New York unravels.

This was my first time viewing Blue Jasmine since last summer and it lost none of its bite with a second viewing.  Woody Allen's films have followed a trend: one positively-received followed by one mixed or negatively-received.  With his last few films, the good movies have been among the best he's made.  With Midnight in Paris, Allen struck a chord with audiences and critics everywhere and the Academy honored him with another Oscar for Best Original Screenplay along with Best Picture and Best Director nominations.  While Blue Jasmine doesn't quite reach the giddy, profoundly brilliant high of Midnight, it is a wonderfully complex character study featuring Allen's usual sharp dialogue.  This one also has a few twists that make it more narratively unique than some of his other films.

So as not to rehash the rest of my glowing review from this past summer, I'll detail the special features on this disc.  There is a short feature featuring interviews with the cast on the red carpet.  It's more of a promotional piece than anything, so it really doesn't lend a huge amount of insight into the making of the film (that isn't to say there aren't a few interesting bits).  Also included on the disc is the trailer and a video recording of an LA press conference.  In both the interviews and the press conference, the actors make a point about how no one, save for Blanchett and Hawkins got the complete script.  The rest of the cast had no idea what was going on in the film.  This explains why everything in the film feels as natural as it does.

Every actor in the supporting cast gives a strong performance.  Hawkins is moving, Bobby Cannavale is strong as a loving brute, and Andrew Dice Clay plays against type as a misunderstood man.  It's a very sympathetic role that he pulls off with great nuance.  His chemistry with Hawkins is very believable.  Louis C.K. also has an amusing supporting turn, as does Peter Sarsgaard.

Overall, this is not a disc to buy for the special features, but for the film itself.  As a piece of filmmaking, Blue Jasmine is efficient (as just about all of Allen's films are) and interesting.  There's something about Allen's films that makes them very watchable and rewatchable.  There is no other director that makes films that I could turn on and watch at the drop of a hat.  Allen's films are simultaneously entertaining and stimulating and even at their roughest, very accessible and digestible.  Blue Jasmine is no exception and will go down as one of the best of his late-period works.

I awarded this film a 4/4 over the summer and wouldn't hesitate to do so again.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


(L-r) LEGO® minifigures Wyldstyle (voiced by ELIZABETH BANKS), Emmet (CHRIS PRATT) and Vitruvius (MORGAN FREEMAN) in the 3D computer animated adventure "The LEGO® Movie," from Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Lego System A/S. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
2014, 100 minutes
Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

Review by Joshua Handler

Now this is how family movies should be made.  Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's The LEGO® Movie is a clever, detailed animated comedy that should delight all who see it.  Moving at a breakneck pace, Lord and Miller waste no time introducing us to Emmet (the voice of Chris Pratt), an ordinary guy who quickly gets tossed into an adventure - an adventure that may just save the world.  The movie features an all-star voice cast including Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Jonah Hill, and Will Arnett as Batman among others.

Lord and Miller have surpassed expectations once again.  After seeing the trailer for 21 Jump Street and  thinking it looked like the junk, I had low expectations.  However, I saw the film and thoroughly enjoyed it.  That is a movie that shows what good chemistry and a clever script can do.  When I saw that there was a LEGO® movie coming out, I was worried it would be just another massive piece of product placement.  I was wrong.

What makes this movie such a blast is that it seems as if the filmmakers took time to create something meaningful, something enjoyable, and not just some movie aimed at the lowest common denominator, which is something that happens to most other movies aimed at children.  The LEGO® Movie offers many surprises and a manic amount of energy, yet these are grounded in an engaging story filled with witty dialogue that will make both adults and kids laugh.

The film suffers from being overly sentimental/heavy-handed in its third act, but this does little to ruin the fun that I had watching this movie.  The voice cast adds to the entertainment.  Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the voice of the relentlessly upbeat Emmet, while Will Arnett stands out as the voice of Batman.

The animation looks like stop-motion, but was done all on a computer.  However, the filmmakers took the care to design the LEGO® blocks in the film and put them all together so that when they "deconstructed" and "reconstructed" them it looked real.

Overall, The LEGO® Movie is a must-see for adults and children alike.  Its infectious energy, impressive screenplay, and detailed animation make this one of the best early-year releases in recent memory.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Alfonso Cuarón to Be at Film Society of Lincoln Center

The following is a press release from the Film Society of Lincoln Center:



February 4, 2014 (New York, NY) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced today An Evening with Alfonso Cuarón, on Thursday, February 13. The evening will include the Oscar®-nominated director in person to present a screening of his latest award-winning and 10-time Oscar®-nominated film Gravity, immediately followed by a conversation and then a screening of his 2006 critically acclaimed film Children of Men. The conversation will be moderated by Film Comment magazine editor-in-chief, Gavin Smith. Tickets on sale now at  

Dennis Lim, the Film Society’s Director of Programming said, “In this landmark year for Alfonso, we’re proud to welcome him to the Film Society for a closer look at his film Gravity, both an artistic and a technical breakthrough. We’ll also take this opportunity to re-visit his gripping Children of Men on the big screen and engage in an in-depth conversation about his rich and varied body of work.”

Alfonso Cuarón is a six-time Oscar® nominee, with his three most recent Oscar®nods coming for his work as a director, producer and editor on the acclaimed worldwide hit Gravity, which he also co-wrote (with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He made his feature film directorial debut in 1991 with Sólo Con Tu Pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria), which was the biggest box office hit in Mexico in 1992 and garnered Cuarón an Ariel Award as co-writer. Sydney Pollack then hired him to direct Murder, Obliquely, an episode of the neo-noir Fallen Angels series on Showtime. The episode earned Cuarón the 1993 Cable ACE Award for Best Director.

Cuarón made his American feature film debut with the critically acclaimed 1995 motion picture adaptation of the beloved children’s book A Little Princess. The film was nominated for Academy Awards® for Best Cinematography and Art Direction, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics New Generation Award. That was followed in 1998 by Great Expectations, a contemporary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel.

Cuarón then returned to Mexico to direct a Spanish-speaking cast in the funny, provocative and controversial road comedy Y Tu Mamá También, for which he received an Oscar® nomination for Best Original Screenplay (written with his brother Carlos Cuarón) and BAFTA Award nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay. It also won the 2001 Venice Film Festival Awards for screenplay and acting revelations (Marcello Mastroianni Award). In 2003, he directedHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the most successful motion picture franchise of all time, based on the best-selling books by author J.K. Rowling.

Cuarόn’s next project, Children of Men, which he co-wrote with Timothy Sexton, was one of the most talked about films of 2006, and was celebrated by critics and film fans for its compelling human drama of hope set against a dystopian reality that was, even then, being shaped by events in the early 21st century. The film brought two Oscar® nominations to Cuarón, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. It also received a number of other awards and nominations, including a third Oscar®nod for Best Cinematography; two BAFTA Awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design; and a Venice Film Festival Award for Best Cinematography.
An Evening with Alfonso Cuarón will be held at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street on Thursday, February 13 beginning at 6:30PM. Single screening tickets for Gravity are $20 for Members and $25 for the General Public and $8 for everyone for Children of Men. A Double Feature Package, for both screenings, is available for $25 for Members and $30 for the General Public. Visit for tickets and additional information.


Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2013, 3D Digital projection, 91 min.
Alfonso Cuarón’s riveting drama Gravity is a taut 90-minute emotional journey, captured with breathtaking and groundbreaking effects. Sandra Bullock, who holds the screen alone for much of the film, delivers a layered performance as a scientist on her first trip to space. The film’s much-discussed opening take sets the scene: what starts as routine spacewalk peppered with witty banter, courtesy of a veteran astronaut (played by George Clooney), quickly turns into turbulent, gut-wrenching ride. From there, Gravity becomes a story of isolation and survival set in the unforgiving realm of space. The film, which has struck a chord with critics and audiences, earned 10 Oscar® nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects). In addition, Cuáron was recently honored with the Best Director Award from the Directors Guild of America.
*Thursday, February 13 at 6:30PM
Director Alfonso Cuarón will participate in a conversation immediately following the screening.

Alfonso Cuarón, USA, 2006, Digital projection, 109 min.
Adapted from a 1992 P.D. James novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in a dystopian Britain on the brink of bleak demise. The human race has been ravaged by a plague of sterility and the youngest person in the world has just died at the age of 18. As desperation sets in, a lone pregnant woman must be transported to safety to ensure the future of humanity. This science fiction political thriller, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, was one of the most acclaimed films of 2006 and is remembered for its stirring performances by Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and others, as well as its distinctive filmmaking technique.Children of Men received three Academy Award® nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing.
*Thursday, February 13 at 9:15PM
Director Alfonso Cuarón will introduce the screening. 

Film Society of Lincoln Center
Founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center works to recognize established and emerging filmmakers, support important new work, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility and understanding of the moving image. Film Society produces the renowned New York Film Festival, a curated selection of the year's most significant new film work, and presents or collaborates on other annual New York City festivals including Dance on Camera, Film Comment Selects, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, LatinBeat, New Directors/New Films, NewFest, New York African Film Festival, New York Asian Film Festival, New York Jewish Film Festival, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema and Rendez-vous With French Cinema. In addition to publishing the award-winning Film Comment Magazine, Film Society recognizes an artist's unique achievement in film with the prestigious "Chaplin Award." The Film Society's state-of-the-art Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, located at Lincoln Center, provide a home for year round programs and the New York City film community.

The Film Society receives generous, year-round support from Royal Bank of Canada, Jaeger-LeCoultre, American Airlines, The New York Times, Stella Artois, the Kobal Collection, Trump International Hotel and Tower, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

For more information, visit and follow @filmlinc on Twitter.

Monday, February 3, 2014

LA VIE DE BOHÈME Criterion DVD Review

LA VIE DE BOHÈME Criterion DVD Review
1992, 100 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Aki Kaurismäki's La Vie de Bohème is a deadpan tragicomedy about three men living a Bohemian life in modern-day France.  As delightfully bizarre as it is beautifully crafted, this movie won't be for all tastes, but for those who like their comedies a bit on the dry side, this will be perfect for you.

La Vie de Bohème is the first film Kaurismäki made about Marcel Marx, a failing writer.  The follow-up to La Vie de Bohème is 2011's Le Havre, a fairy tale-like story set in the French port town of Le Havre.  Much of the draw of these films are the characters.  Kaurismäki fills his films with great actors with memorable faces.  André Wilms leads the cast as Marx, with Matti Pelonpää, Evelyne Didi, Christine Murillo, and Kari Väänänen rounding out the cast.  Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Léaud and director Samuel Fuller also make appearances.

La Vie de Bohème is technically set in the modern day (of 1992, when the film was made), but it always feels like the world of a time gone by.  The beautiful black-and-white cinematography gives the film an expressionistic, dream-like quality.  La Vie de Bohème is the most romantic view of poverty I've seen.  The shadowy images intoxicate as the story of the modern-day Bohemians at its center takes hold.  The characters in La Vie de Bohème aren't rich, but they don't care.  They like living their lives however they please.

Included on this disc is a 50-minute documentary shot during production on La Vie de Bohème that includes interviews with Kaurismäki and much of his crew including a brief interview with the cooks on set.  Because there were so many nationalities represented on the set of La Vie de Bohème, the chefs tried their best to make sure to serve food that would remind the crew of home.  This is a fairly inconsequential interview but one that I liked because it is a point of view that we don't normally get to hear.  I wish the documentary said who each interviewee is, but it was always interesting to hear how much they all love Kaurismäki and his film shoots.  Considering what a dour film La Vie de Bohème is, it was amusing to see and hear how much fun the cast and crew had working on it.

Also included on the disc is an interview with André Wilms, which is extremely entertaining.

Overall, this is definitely not a film I'd recommend as a blind buy since it's offbeat sense of humor and meandering plot won't be for all.  However, if you're a Kaurismäki fan, as I am, this would be a good edition to buy.  La Vie de Bohème is a slight film, but a very enjoyable one that I'm thrilled Criterion has brought back.

Film: 3/4
Special Features: 3.5/4

CABARET: Classic Film Review

Joel Grey in CABARETCourtesy of Warner Bros.
1972, 124 minutes
Rated PG

Review by Joshua Handler

Cabaret is showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of a film series entitled "Roadshow: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s" which takes its name from Matthew Kennedy's book of the same name.  Kennedy introduced the screening of Cabaret that I attended.

Bob Fosse's Cabaret is a largely-forgotten film.  Back in 1972 when it premiered, it was a critical and commercial success.  At the Oscars, it won eight awards including Best Director for Fosse, Best Actress for Liza Minnelli, and Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey.  Cabaret still has the record for most Oscars won without a Best Picture win.  Unfortunately for Cabaret, The Godfather was released the same year and the rest is history.  However, Cabaret is a great film and an unusually racy one for its time.  It is the first in a series of films Fosse made in which characters or societies self-destruct.  Lenny and All That Jazz (two other jaw-droppers) followed.

With Cabaret, all of the music is diegetic - the music is heard by the characters and exists in the world of the movie.  With the exception of one song, every song is sung in the Kit Kat Club, a nightclub in 1930s Berlin where Minnelli's Sally Bowles works.  The songs sung at the club comment on the plot - a daring move on the filmmakers' part.  Up until Cabaret, musicals were big affairs; three-hour extravaganzas full of stars, lavish sets and costumes, and too many musical numbers for their own good.  Cabaret was fairly economical at 124 minutes (it's a bit too long, but nothing compared to The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story).  These films are quite good in their own rights, but none of them ever needed to be three hours long.

And what's more, Cabaret is actually about something.  It is about the fall of a corrupted society and how it made way for an even more corrupted one.  It is a scathing indictment of the blind upper classes of German society during the Weimar Republic.  In fact, it is not unlike Vittorio De Sica's heartbreaking The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  

Cabaret is not a piece of escapist entertainment.  As Sally's world starts cracking under the growing darkness in Germany, the music and tone of the film get darker.  Sally may try to deny the fact that the world is changing (for her, life is a cabaret, as the song goes), but Fosse shows us the true evil lying in plain sight.

Fosse, for all of his maximalist tendencies, was a master of subtlety, at least in Cabaret.  Nazism isn't something that is shown as an overwhelming force of evil throughout the film; it is something that takes hold and gradually begins to become more overwhelming (the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" sequence is chilling), just as it began to overwhelm life in Germany.

Overall, Cabaret is a great film and one that time has been very kind to.  Unlike other musicals produced around the time Cabaret was released, it hasn't aged much.  The songs are just as catchy, the humor is very racy, and the filmmaking still feels fresh.  The only fault I can find with Cabaret is that it drags a bit late in its middle portion.  However, that is not nearly enough to sink a film I consider one of the greatest ever made.