Sunday, February 17, 2019

Winter FiIm Awards 2019: NEW YORK SCHERZO and PANORAMA: JAMMING TO THE TOP

NEW YORK SCHERZO
Excellent documentary on the lives of three musicians in New York City as they try to make their music careers move forward.

Yea we've been here any number of times before over the last few years but this time out director Shaan Couture gives us every reason imaginable to fall madly in love with the film. From great subjects, to kick as music to stunning filmmaking, NEW YORK SCHERZO beats and pulses with not only the life and energy of the musician at its core but also the city they are striving to make a living in.

A winner and highly recommended

PANORAMA: JAMMING TO THE TOP
Portrait of Steel Xplosion and their quest to compete in Panorama, a festival of pan music (steel drums) in 2013.

Doing what the best documentaries do, opening our eyes to a world most of us have never seen and making us want to know more PANORAMA is a kick as film full of great music and wonderful people full of passion for what they do. Watching the film I found myself moving to the music and wanting to go check the internet to find out when the next competition was going to be happening in New York so I could go and experience it in person.

While I originally had no intention of covering the film I found myself pushed and prodded into doing so, with the result I ended up with a big ass smile on my face and a need to go out and experience something I previously knew nothing about.

Very recommended.

Shakepeare in Tokyo (2018) Winter Film Awards 2019

SHAKESPEARE IN TOKYO is in the running for the best film of 2019.  A joyous celebration of life and family and letting go it moved me to tears and laughter and just book a big ass smile on my face.

After their mother dies Anthony,a business executive living in Japan finds himself saddled with a younger brother Ben who has Downs Syndrome, which he thinks means he can't take care of himself. However the young man  can, and when he gets the chance he heads off to see Tokyo armed only with his charm, his sketchbook and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bard of Avon.

Warm, witty, wonderful and just plain great this film charm the pants off you. A wonderful little tale about how people are not always what we think and how we must seize the moment. I was in total heaven. (It also says a great deal about brothers which touched my heart)

That the film works as well as it does is due entirely to Gerald O'Dwyer as Ben. He has so much charm you would probably expect that left on his own O'Dwyer would be running around the world making friends where ever he goes. He's so good that I am kind of hard pressed this isn't a real story.

One of the coolest parts was the unexpected appearance of the great Sonny Chiba as a calligrapher who plops down next to Ben and then teaches him how to do calligraphy. From the look on Chiba's face and the clips cut together in the sequence it must have been an absolute blast  and I want to see the out takes. (And for those wondering this IS  Chiba's best screen role bar none)

I love this film more than words.

One of the best films you will see in 2019. It is a masterpiece and an absolute must see.

Thank you to the Winter Film Awards for bringing it to New York and putting it in our lives.

Oscar Films: If Beale Street Could Talk and Can You Ever Forgive Me?

If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follow up to MOONLIGHT is a beautiful heartbreaking film about a false accusation of rape and how it rips apart a young couple. Stunningly acted, and beautifully made on every level. How and why this didn't get more Oscar nominations is a head scratcher since it as good as a film as they come.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The story of Lee Israel's turning to literary forgery in order to make ends meet is a wickedly funny and incredibly sad film about two people, Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and her cohort Jack Hock (played by Richard E Grant) who are on the outs with life and just trying to get by. Containing what maybe Melissa McCarthy's greatest performance this is good time with some people you probably wouldn't really want to hang out with in real life. Hopefully they will be getting some Oscar love.

Winter Film Awards 2019: The Animated Shorts

Here are reviews of all the animated shorts playing at the Winter Film Awards. Because they are playing in different blocks across the festival you will have to check the festival website to see when and in which block or blocks the films that interested you are playing.

Information on the films and tickets can be had here.

DON'T THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT
Teenage girl is forced to confront her constant worrying about all of the terrible things that good happen. This is a solid little message piece of story telling.

EXPEND
A man looks for an energy source in a steam punk world. This is a great looking film that is too short at just under 4 minutes to have much of an impact.

FILL AND MOO
Strange tale of a lonely person living in a black and white world who discovers the movies and color. It has some great moments but the ending kind of disappoints.

FOR A BETTER LIFE
Story of Fekri Kram who was sold by his mother for $100 at the age of five to a woman who abused him for years. Heartbreaking story of abuse and redemption expertly told.

I LOAF YOU
A tiny loaf of bread tries to get noticed in a bakery. A very sweet little film.

IS THIS REAL?
Interesting trifle about a creature that crawl out of a pond and wanders across a barren landscape. I have no idea what it means but it looks pretty damn cool.

NOCTURNE
Absolutely piece of dark animation has various creature gamble for what amounts to their souls.  This is a must see nightmare of a film. Highly recommended.

OLD FOLKS
A bickering old couple  can't remember why they are together.  When he walks out and goes to the places they used to go to he remembers why he loved her all those years ago. A nice little film about what is important.

THE BURDEN
Incredibly weird mini opera is going to be a love or hate it film. A strange stop motion film has odd half animal creatures singing about depressing things. You'll know you're not in Kansas the instant the fishmen sing about hotel rooms, One of the weirdest films you'll ever see- that's a compliment.

THE FLIGHT
The story of a man who lost his family in Hurricane Maria. Another love it or hate it film.

THE MYTH OF THE HAFTVAD WORM
A young woman finds a worm who can spin an amazing amount of thread. Possibly the most beautiful of the animated films at The Winter Film Awards it is a old fadhioned fable beautifully told. Recommended.

WHY MUST THE SUN GO DOWN
A nightingale  looks to to find out why the sun must go down.
As glorious a fable as you will ever see. This is pure movie magic and one of the best films I've seen in 2019. This maybe the best tale that Neil Gaiman and Dave  McKean never created together.

YESTERDAY WILL BE TOMORROW
A man is trapped in an experiment where he dies over and over again as if in a video game. Intriguing film about life and death doesn't quite stick the ending but still manages to be good enough to give a shot.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Winter Film Awards 2019: The Horror Shorts

Monday at the Winter Film Awards is Horror Night. As is there custom they will be running two blocks of features and short films (Tickets and information can be had here) giving you an incredible amount of movies for you money. 

While I should have reviewed each block separately  I haven't had a chance to see either of the features yet. However since the shorts are all good enough to warrant  purchasing tickets just to see them I'm presenting reviews of all the shorts together so that you can get tickets now.

And understand that all the films are good and that my thoughts about some being not as good as others is simply a matter of being in rarefied company

One word of warning some of the shorts are not for kids because of content

158
Creepy mood piece has a teen trapped between awake and asleep worlds. Impossible to describe film is one that should be experienced.

ALICE AFTER WONDERLAND
Disturbing psycho sexual take on Alice in Wonderland or the aftermath where everything now has dark overtones when one becomes sexually aware. Or something. I'm not sure I just know it messed with my head.

CATCALLS
Kick ass horror tale has a flasher being hunted by the two girls who he flashed. Unfortunately for him they aren't quite human. Genuinely scary film keeps us off balance as a mix of styles prevents us from getting a good idea what the hell the young ladies really are. This is a stunner and a must.

HONEY DO
The women in a man's life remind him of the "honey do" list of things that has to be done. I can't say a heck of a lot about this one because in order to properly discuss it I would have to give the twist away and I don't want to do that

LUCY'S TALE
 A coming of age tale about Lucy dealing with her life as a teen and discovering she isn't quite like other girls. Not one of my favorite films in the collection here at the Winter Film Awards owing more to the fact that its payoff doesn't quite hold up at it being the longest of the shorts.

PUPPET MASTER
Doing what horror films do best and transcending the genre into something greater PUPPET MASTER is nominally about a woman who allows a man to turn her into a puppet. However it is something much more scary and resonant and it is actually a film about the dance lovers get into when into a relationship as we and our partners take turns at contolling each other in the name of love.

THE HOBBYIST
A man looking for an untraceable poison finds he has to prove his worthiness to get the poison. Odd little parable about possibly getting hat our hearts desire is a small little trifle. Not so much scary as tense. Worth a look.

For tickets or more information on any of these films or the others playing at the Winter Film Awards go here.

OscarFilms A STAR IS BORN, GREEN BOOK and VICE

Star is Born
Or as I like to call it 3 performances looking for a movie.
Remake of the classic story sputters and putters its way through 135 minutes or so as Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga, and makes her a star as Sam Elliot looks on. Good performances are lost in a film that dramatically never is believable as Bradley Cooper’s charming lead mozies down the road to ruin. While we can buy most things that happen, there simply isn’t enough to Cooper’s character to accept his tragic end. Actually we simply don’t know enough his character to feel we know anything about him. His performance is great, the character is grossly under written (someone other than Cooper should have written it so there was more on screen). As for Cooper’s filmmaking it’s okay. Cribbing way too much from other filmmakers and other similar backstage films this Star is Born never feels like its own movie. It’s just an imitation of some other better films.

Green Book
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali tell the story of Tony Lip who drove Dr Don Shirley on a concert tour of the American South. An amiable tale of two men facing the racism in America it is a the sort of movie that would have cleaned up at the Oscars twenty or thirty years ago. While it is an amiable buddy film with a serious edge, you can’t help but like both Lip and Shirley because if the actors portraying them, it really isn’t quite deserving of all of the awards it’s won. Yes, the performances are excellent and deserving of note, but outside of that the film is no better than good. It’s a warm and fuzzy tale that too many people have mistaken for something deep. (I think if I saw this with no expectations of “greatness or meaningfulness” I think I would have liked it more)

VICE
Scathing portrait of Dick Cheney and his rise to power mirroring the fragmenting of America is a film I can admire more than like. A take no prisoners take down the Cheney and the Republican Neo-Con take over of the country reveals how a bunch of guys just looking for power and money took over despite ultimately believing in nothing except their side (whatever the hell that is) is right. Its a brutal look at what happened and why- but it's so arch and goofy that it trips over it's baggy pants and falls on its face. Yes, Christian Bale is great as the man himself but he is also kind of dull with the seeming lack of emotion.  The movie it self is tries too hard to be funny but it only clicks in moments (Alfred Molina's waiter for example).

Friday, February 15, 2019

The House that Jack Built (2018)

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT disappointed me. Lars von Trier's serial killer film is neither as bad as promised nor particularly shocking, especially if you've seen some of the low budget torture porn crap that people churn out and stick a horror movie label on it.

The film is a conversation between Jack  (Matt Dillon) and Verge (Bruno Ganz) where Jack takes stock of his life and his life's work as a serial killer. Jack's reign of terror is ending, the police are closing in.  Then in the final half hour the film swerves into literary territory as Verge (aka Virgil) takes Jack to hell in a riff on Dante's Inferno.

Almost all of the first two hours of the film where we watch Jack kill people is boring shite. The cold and calculating recounting of five of jacks kills is monotonously dull. We don't particularly care for Jack and his victims are largely ciphers. Any tension we feel come purely from waiting to see how the the victims die. It is even duller than other literary attempt at murder/torture porn like American Psycho and similar films. Frankly I would rather watch/read some of the exploitation/pulp takes on the genre since there is no pretense and some attempt at emotion.

What is intriguing is the conversation with Bruno Ganz that punctuates the kills. The conversation is so much better than the visual vignettes that I kind of wished this was a stage play where it would have been all talk as opposed to having to watch people die by rote simply because the director wanted to pull the audience's chain instead of just focusing what he really wants to talk about. For me the interesting part when it turns into Von Trier's Inferno and Virgil takes Jack to hell because here at last von Trier is doing something interesting. At that point this over long dull film finally becomes something more than a bad slasher film.

Is the conversation pretentious? Oh dear god yes. It completely purple in its prose at times but even so there are some interesting bits which make it kind of worth seeing for the adventurous in a format where they can scan through the dead people.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A very short review of Fascination Amour (1999)

Rich man and his entourage take a poor girl on a sea cruise because he's suppose to be married and his mother keeps fixing him up. He plans on giving her a blow off  but finds himself falling for her. The usual complications arise.(more or less)

Okay romantic comedy, is actually not a bad time killer. The problem is that it has the feel of a film that was made by the numbers rather than because any one cared. Its not bad, but at the same time I wish I had connected more...then again I will probably watch it again which says a great deal.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Tuba to Cuba: On the Road with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band


Don’t expect to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Hip jazz fans know requests of that “good old good one” will set you back a whopping twenty bucks in Preservation Hall. Honestly, it is probably worth it, but the band will really stretch themselves in new directions during this goodwill tour. Forget the politics and get ready to get down during T.G. Herrington & Danny Clinch’s A Tuba to Cuba, which opens this Friday in New York.

There are not a lot of seats in Preservation Hall and it is not well-air-conditioned, but they still pack in the standing-room-only crowds for every performance. The Hall was founded by the late, beloved Alan Jaffe, whose son Ben succeeded him both as the Band’s tuba player and the artistic director of the Hall. Having grown up in the middle of New Orleans jazz, Jaffe is particularly aware of its Latin influences—what Jelly Roll Morton called “The Spanish Tinge.”

It turns out the NOLA-Cuba axis was a two-way street, as demonstrated by a sizable expat population that migrated to Santiago de Cuba, due to dissatisfaction with the Louisiana Purchase. Yet, that free-flow of culture and people was shut off when Cuba became a closed Communist police state.

There is some terrific music in Tuba to Cuba that more than compensates for the problematic way the film ignores the merciless human rights abuses that still continue unchecked under the Royal Castro family regime. There is no mention of the violent thuggery directed at the Ladies in White or the jailing of dissidents, like Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. However, there is plenty of music and it sounds terrific.

As you would expect, the Preservation Hall band-members and the local musicians (whether they specialize in jazz or rumba) mesh together seamlessly. In fact, they immediately recognize a kinship between the second-line and rumba traditions. They also feel a deep rhythmic connection that runs through Congo Square back to Africa.

Hopefully, Tuba to Cuba will also lead to more recognition for the world class musicians of Preservation Hall. Arguably, Mark Braud is younger than modernist snobs would expect, but he has masterful chops worthy of the city’s great trumpet tradition. On the other hand, the sunnily charismatic Charlie Gabriel is everything you could ever hope for from a New Orleans jazz statesman.

The music will recharge your batteries and the human connections forged during the film are genuine, so you might as well overlook the ugly truth, including widespread censorship and street violence employed as a tool of state intimidation, which Herrington and Clinch clearly did their best to conceal—but let’s not make a habit of it. Recommended for fans of New Orleans-style jazz, A Tuba to Cuba opens this Friday (2/15) in New York, at the Village East.

Sorry Angel opens Friday

With SORRY ANGEL opening Friday here is a repost of my review from when it played at last year's New York Film Festival

Set in 1993 Christophe Honoré's SORRY ANGEL is about a well known gay writer is mourning a dying an ex-lover from AIDS, a disease that is living inside him. As he tries to navigate what maybe his waning days he meets and falls in love with a college student.

Good romantic drama has a great cast, some wickedly funny one liners and more than it's share of touching moments. Taken on its own terms it is a solid little time passer.

Unfortunately the film has two things going against it. The first is not really a problem of the film itself but rather the fact that it is playing at the New York Film Festival. It is very similar to the film BPM which played the fest last year, something that every writer I spoke to after the NYFF press screening noted when I spoke to them about it. While that is completely unfair it is unavoidable since both films are AIDS films set in roughly the same time period and played at the same festival. Sadly SORRY ANGEL suffers by the unfair and unavoidable comparison.

The other problem is the fact that much is unsaid. While it's clear that everyone knows and inhabits their characters there is something missing. We don't really get to know any of the characters past a certain point. They don't bleed off the screen but simply inhabit the time they are on screen. It is, as the mother of our hero's son says, "he keeps his life compartmentalized." Everything in this film is compartmentalized and as a result I never fully connected since I kept feeling that I should have known more about the characters other than exactly what we see on screen.

Don't get me wrong I like the film, but I wanted to love it, hell there is almost enough here that I should love it, but it never cross the line into a full blown romance.

Quibbles aside, there is enough here that if the interests you I recommended it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Patrick (2018) opens Friday in theaters and on VOD

Let’s clear the air- PATRICK breaks no new ground. You know where it is going to go from almost the opening frame. If you are okay with that then chances are you are going to bet utterly charmed by this light fluff ball of a movie. Actually if like pugs you will be more than charmed but madly in love with it.

Not long after Sarah‘s boyfriend is thrown out and she goes through the movies idea of depression her grandmother dies and leaves her spoiled pug Patrick. As she tries to cope with a dog she doesn’t want, in a building that doesn’t allow pets, she grows and romance and friendship blossom.

Yes it does exactly what you expect, and if you are in the right frame of mind you’ll be heaven. Yes you know where it’s going but it’s really well done light comedy featuring some wonderful English actors (Jennifer Saunders, Peter Davidson, Bernard Cribbins). More importantly it features Patrick the pug who has the best deadpan face since Buster Keaton. Had Buster been around to work with Patrick we would have had a pairing for the ages. Frankly how you react to the film will entirely depend upon how you react to Patrick. If you love the sight of a cute pug running around you will love this film.

I did. I mean I really did.

Oh to hell with high art. I saw this film in the middle of watching the mostly pretentious slate of films playing at the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center when I decided to take a break. Boy was I delighted. This film didn’t want me to do anything other than laugh and smile and I was all the better for it.

PATRICK is a delight and is highly recommended who has had enough of pretentious films or the terrible things going on in the world. No it will will not change evil in the world but it will make you smile and remind you that you can still smile.

PATRICK opens Friday in select theaters as well as on VOD. There will be a One-Night Event (100 cities) on February 19th.

The restored War and Peace opens Friday at Lincoln Center


This is a repost of my piece on WAR AND PEACE which ran way back in 2011. The the film getting a new restoration and screenings starting Friday at Lincoln Center here are my thoughts.

Arguably the greatest, or one of the greatest films ever made. The six and a half hour International running time caused the film to be screened in two parts (and its still several hours short of it’s full length). The extreme running time also resulted in the film being referred to as a joke, except it’s not, even to the point of winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

It was originally shot as four separate films that were released in Soviet theaters over a period of four years. The film was then cut together and the cut down for international release. As one of the extras on the Rusico release the head of Mosfilm, which produced the film, says that it’s the international release that became the only existing copy of the film anywhere, even in the Soviet Union. When it came time to restore the film (at a cost of several million dollars) a search had to be made across the globe in order to find elements of the film that they could use and restore. It was only through chance that they found an odd print here or there. The film was then restored digitally, and as of the time the restored films (they returned the one film to four) they never struck a new print. (The film was semi-recently released into theaters once more by a company who ignored my questions about their restoration. Like why their cuts of the four parts of the film varied wildly in running time from any known prints)

First off when you see this film, do your best to see it widescreen. For years Kultur had a version on VHS and on early DVD that was so cropped that one section of the film was called 81 instead of 1812.

Second try and find the longest and most complete version you possible. Right now the Rusico restoration seems to be the most complete and with all it’s additional goodies is the best way to go. It adds back in well over an hour of footage that makes things much clearer and deeper. This version also comes with an English dub, which while not ideal, does make watching an almost 8 hour long film easier than reading subtitles all that time (The restored footage is however in Russian and will play with subtitles automatically if you are watching it in English).

For me watching the film is like going into an isolation tank.I’ll start the film, fight with it for about 15 or 20 minutes before I click with it and I find that I’m in Russia for the next 8 plus hours of a weekend or several weeknights.

As great as the film is over all, the film, as it unwinds, is wildly uneven, going from truly amazing to almost laughably bad often with in the same sequence. There is huge spectacle and small human drama. There is a kind of whiplash to it all, but at the same time the film sucks you in and shows you events and people in a way that almost no other film has ever managed. Rarely have I ever felt that I’ve gotten to really know a character, any character, so thoroughly as I do here. (which one? all of them)

I can't say enough good about the film.

Actually the problem with this film is that it's considered a joke. The whole idea of War and Peace is a punchline and it carries with it certain connotations. Trust me I had reservations. When I first started the film for the first time I expected to see a film that was a joke. What I got was a film that blew me away. It changed the way I saw Film. Actually what I got was a film that had me chasing fuller and fuller copies across the globe.

The film is simply put one of the greatest films ever made

Yes, I know I haven't gone into details. I haven't gone into the story of the Russian nobles fleeing Napoleon and trying to make sense of life. I haven't gone in to the breath taking look of the film. I haven't mentioned the shattering performances. I haven't done so because if you haven never seen the film and are reluctant to see it there is nothing I can say to make you see it. The only way to do so would be to kidnap you and force you to see it.

I can't do that.

The only thing I can do is say see this movie because you really need to see this. (okay I could probably send you all copies of the film but I don't have that kind of money)

You want a great film, see this film.And if you've ever seen this film but only saw it on TV in a pan and scan version see it restored and wide screen, because until you've seen this widescreen and restored you haven't seen it.

This is the top of the heap as far as I'm concerned. It's as good as movies get--and it's a great film both emotionally and intellectually.

See this film and see the world differently.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Ruben Brandt, Collector

He is something like a cross between the protagonists from Hitchcock’s Spellbound and To Catch a Thief. Dr. Brandt is a world-renowned head-shrinker, who is fully capable of curing his own inner demons, but his therapy is literally criminal. With the help of his patients, he will steal what troubles his psyche. “Possess your problems to conquer them” is one of the principles of his treatment, so the good doctor will take possession of some of the world’s greatest works of art in director-screenwriter-animation designer Milorad Krstić’s sly animated caper Ruben Brandt, Collector, which opens this Friday in New York.

Mimi is cat burglar par excellence, who was hired to pilfered a rare gem from the Louvre, but she swiped an exquisite Chinese fan instead, because she found it more aesthetically pleasing. Alas, her nemesis, private detective Mike Kowalski recovers the rare piece, but Mimi slips through his fingers yet again. Of course, her mobbed up employer is unhappy with her improvisation, so she decides to lay low by seeking treatment at the Swiss clinic under the direction of celebrated art therapist Ruben Brandt.

Brandt really is a good doctor, who has been able to help his patients, like Bye-Bye Joe, a celebrity bodyguard, who is more Vin Diesel than Vin Diesel, but he has been plagued by vivid nightmares of great artistic masterpieces (Botticelli’s Venus drowned him j-horror style with her tentacle-like hair, for example). Unbeknownst to Brandt, his father, a B.F. Skinnerist mind-control researcher, tried to program into an artistic genius using subliminally enhanced cartoons. Out of appreciation and gratitude, Mimi, Bye-Bye Joe and their fellow patients, the ultra-flat bank-robber Membrano Bruno and the super-hacker Fernando will steal the paintings tormenting Brant’ subconscious.

On one level, Collector is a globe-trotting escapade that visits some of the most picturesque museums on earth, including the Guggenheim and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio. In addition, it is crammed to the rafters with erudite visual references to fine art and great cinema. Frankly, it could take hours to unpack and catalog them all, but most viewers will be distracted by Krstić’s manically-energetic and highly cinematic chase scenes. They are grounded in reality, but he takes advantage of the animated format to push them beyond the bounds of what mortal stunt-performers should be willing to attempt.

It should also be noted Collector is definitely intended to be an animated film for mature adults. The action never gets particularly violent, but it definitely has a grown-up sensibility. There is no hanky-panky between characters either, but Mimi is definitely a slinky, seductive femme fatale and Kowalski’s assistant Marina often works remotely from the spa, in various states of undress. In fact, she ought to replace Jessica Rabbit as the pin-up favorite of animation geeks.

Honestly, Collector is such a clever and stylish film, it makes us wonder what the heck the Academy thinking overlooking it (as well as an original vision like Tito and the Birds) in favor of two ho-hum sequels. Seriously, the animated division needs to raise its game and refine their tastes.

Of course, Collector is much more than a series of cultural and artistic references. It is also jolly entertaining. This is a jaunty romp that has some ingenious shoes to drop, worthy of old Hitch himself. Krstić’s animation is also archly striking, somewhat resembling Gagnol & Felicioli’s Phantom Boy, but with cubist accents to give it a bit of surrealist panache. Highly recommended for fans of high and pop art, Ruben Brandt, Collector opens this Friday (2/15) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.

Christina Tucker takes a look at Hong Sang-Soo's HOTEL BY THE RIVER, or Gangbyun Hotel (2018) which opens Friday

Hong Sangsoo’s Hotel by the River (his 22nd feature) is a film that seems to take place inside of a dream, a liminal space of coincidence, premonition, and visually stunning simplicity not found in reality. The nearly-empty hotel alongside the Han River feels separated from space and time, peaceful ambient noise and snow-covered landscapes a meditative vision in black and white.

Here, an aging poet Ko Younghwan (Ki Joobong) has invited his sons Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo) and Byungsoo (Yoo Jun-sang) to visit him, as he senses that he is near death. Ko is handling the aging process with the often-entertaining dramatics you would expect from a poet - he is poetic, lyrical with his every observation, as peaceful as a martyr, and has isolated himself in a riverside hotel for two weeks. As such, his sons, and the audience, take his premonition with a grain of salt. Still, they humor his attempts to reconnect with his sons Byungsoo and Kyungsoo, whom he left in their childhood. The younger of which, Byungsoo, barely remembers him. Byungsoo, Ko’s youngest son, is a film director, something Sangsoo plays for a few meta jokes throughout. He’s not a real auteur,” a young woman named Yeonju (Song Seonmi) says, and that his films are ambivalent.

Down the hall, Yeonju visits her friend Sanghee (Kim Minhee) who has gone through a breakup - she also has a burn on her hand, from an unknown cause, that effectively adds a physical sense of helplessness and injury to her character to parallel her emotional one. Their plot is undoubtedly the less prominent, but overlaps charmingly with the main story. The two also have some less than mystical coincidences that connect them to the other men - for example Kyungsoo’s car is the same that Yeonju crashed in the past, that has since been repaired.

Hotel by the River’s exploration and visual character are characterized by a frankness, and as Yeonju said of Byungsoo’s, ambivalence. Sangsoo has made himself an observer, presenting us with often-limited information and leaving us to wonder, contemplate, and make our own conclusions about the coincidences, interactions, and natural events that take place. Its ending is depicted with as much gravitas, and as much reasoning as its beginning, which creates an inescapable, effective feeling of heartbreaking melancholy and contemplation.

A Sublime Painting

Every element of Hotel by the River’s form is simple and striking, allows nothing to distract from every interaction. At the start, voiceover narration quickly lists the title, production company, and stars at the beginning of the film, seemingly eager to move on to the meat of the trim 96 minute runtime. A black and white palette allows figures to stand out shockingly against the snow of the hotel, and simple but striking shot composition allows nothing to take away from the interactions taking place.

Throughout, character’s voice-overs state their assessments of the goings-on, the same mundane observations present in the conversations.

Ko’s relationship with his aging body - for example, a scene depicting the chore of getting dressed, as he labors to put on his socks - is presented with such unflinching commitment, effective in its focus. We see him grapple with aging in a single scene before he says anything to his sons, and this informs much of the subsequent sympathy you feel for a father with a lackluster history with his family. Ko’s various struggles, with social interactions, with his guilt, with what seems like depression about his age - make a sympathetic character of a man who is a somewhat unreliable person.

Humor in this film, comes from the misunderstandings, monotony, and repetition inherent in everyday conversation, especially with between close friends and family. People of different genders, of different ages, are victims of losses of translation. The performative nature of impressing family members you are aiming to impress or reconnect with, particularly because of Ko’s anxiety and lack of social graces, are genuinely funny.

Part of the connection the viewer cannot help but feel toward these characters is due to the dialogue, aided by the use of long takes. Entire conversations taking place in minutes-long takes make every conversation feel immservie, as real as any conversation one has had with a family member or friend. Again, there is a sense of focus that demands observation and contemplation.

“Men are incapable of love.”

Just like in any conversation with a loved-one, no matter how close, there are things left unsaid. Kyungsoo never tells his father his marriage has fallen apart. We never find out the details of Sanghee’s breakup, or her injury, or the nature of the car accident. It is these gaps in our understanding that add a layer of mystery to the realism present in the interpersonal reactions, and lend the ending that much more of an emotional punch. There is still a yearning, in watching a film, to understand what has gone on, and why, and when that catharsis is not given, in this case, there are resounding questions of how? and why? That are likely more effective than any straightforward resolution, that would ultimately feel false.

There is, however, a drunken conversation at a restaurant that turns explosive reveals the truths that the three men have been hiding this entire time that approaches the sense of catharsis that a film still needs to signal a change, some manner of conclusion. Byungsoo and Kyungsoo explain their hurt, and their mother’s, to Ko, who explains his reasoning as a younger man for leaving his family. They reach an understanding, but nothing is “solved,” and the two sons return to the hotel separately from their father.

The characters themselves, particularly the sons of poetic Ko, particularly Byungsoo, are shocked and distraught at the night’s tragic end, and what begins as an enthralling, peaceful story of a family reunion and a woman helping a friend through a breakup, becomes one where both the characters and the audience are made to feel guilty for disregarding the feelings of its main character. The ending and its commitment to the frankness that permeates the rest of the film, is an impressive feat that puts the preceding film into perspective.

Ko describes Yeonju and Sanghee, when he comes across them standing in the snow, as a “sublime painting,” a fitting description of this film as a whole. It is a meditation, on nature, on natural processes, on aging, on death, on family, and on the way these indescribable things are at the center of human lives. Hotel by the River, with striking and focused filmmaking, presents a story full of the kind of coincidences and interactions that fill everyday life, and does so without explanations, simple solutions, or concern for direct cause and effect, allowing the viewer to truly feel the powerful emotional dissatisfaction, frustration, and confusion inherent in human life.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Driven (2019) Oxford Film Festival 2019

A couple of days on I’m still trying to sort out what I think about DRIVEN. It’s not that the film is bad, it’s not, more I’m not sure it works the way it’s supposed to.

Emerson (Casey Dillard) is a driver for Ferry (think Uber). Leaving her home for a night of driving she finds a lost bag in the road. This being a college town she thinks nothing of it and tosses it in her car, figuring she’d run it down later. As the passengers come and go Emerson works on her dead pan comedy routine (she wants to be comic) in a running monologue. She eventually picks up Roger (director Richard Speight Jr.), who is on a schedule and needs to travel all over town. He wants to keep it quiet but things happen and Emerson realizes that she is in the middle of a demon horde.

Part comedy, part action film, part drama, part horror film DRIVEN is juggling a so many balls I’m not sure it keeps them all in the air. So much going on this is a film that kind of remains on one level tonally. What kills me is there is something here. I like the idea of a driver getting sucked into a tale like this, but there is something about the way the film feels that prevented me from clicking with it. Trying to figure what has taken up the better part of the last few days since I saw the film.

I think the problem for me is writer and star Casey Dillard as Emerson. If you don’t click with the humor in her running monologue the film is going to fall flat. I kept thinking – “oh that’s a joke” when I should have been laughing. While there is nothing really wrong with her performance as such but her delivery and attitude is a little bit too deadpan.

As I said I like the premise and bits but I’m not too keen on the execution.

That said there is enough here that if the premise looks good to you you should give it a shot since you may click with it where I didn’t.

DOOR AJAR - THE M.B. MAYFIELD STORY (2019) Oxford Film Festival (2019)

DOOR AJAR - THE M.B. MAYFIELD STORY is the story of the African American artist who learned to paint in part by listening through a cracked door at the college where he worked. A portrait of more than just the artist and his art but the world in which lived the film paints a portrait of Mississippi over the last century.

At times low-fi, the film contains a great deal of video shot over the last two decades, the film can be a little jagged. Interviews shot at different times and under different conditions collide to occasionally look like something that was cobbled together from bits. While in many cases this would work against a film in the case of DOOR AJAR it creates an immediacy that most other films lack. For example the film includes an interview with Mayfield shot not long before his death. In other cases we get a glorious sense of place and of the people who came into contact with the man.

Until I saw the film I had no notion Mayfield even existed. While I may have seen some of his art, his name meant nothing. I had no idea what I was I for. When the film was done I found myself on line looking at more of the his paintings and pondering if I can find a space for a book of his art work.

I really liked this film a great deal. What I liked more was that it opened my eyes to an artist I knew nothing about but who influenced those who saw his work and more importantly the people who knew him.

Recommended

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Oxford Film Festival Music Films: DON'T GET TROUBLE IN MIND and ICEPICK TO THE MOON

DON"T GET TROUBLE IN YOUR MIND is a wonderful portrait of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of African American musicians who specialized in country and folk music. While you may not have heard of the group you probably have run across Rhiannon Giddens the lead singer who has gone off on a solo career.

 Charting the course of the group from their founding until now the film is full of wonderful insight into the members, their music and their outlook on life. Over the course of the film we come to understand and love them and their influences with a depth that’s rare in musical documentaries. And of course there is the music. Pretty much a wall to wall sampler of the Chocolate Drops music this is a film that will have you rushing to iTunes or where ever you go to buy up all their recordings.

Highly recommended.


ICE PICK TO THE MOON is a portrait of the music of Reverend Fred Lane (aka Tim R Reed) who back in the early 80’s released two albums of off kilter loungey/swingy music ala Frank Sinatra (kind of as if Sinatra's songs had had Dada lyrics) that warped the minds of anyone who ever heard them. With song titles such as The French Toast Man they are definitely weird. After two albums Lane stopped making music and went off to do other things - leaving everyone to wonder what the hellwas that and who was the mad man behind the records.

 Revealing the small (but growing) rabid fandom for Lane’s albums as well as the stories of their creation the film will be like manna from heaven for fans of Lane and off kilter ditties. With its own unique style that is like a mix of the labels of Dr Broner's soap mixed with some of the Church of Subgenius videos and fliers, ICEPICK TO THE MOON is a one of a kind documentary, which is perfectly fitting for a one of a kind performer.

For the most part I was really entertained, however as much as I like the film I think that the film is probably a too long at 99 minutes. I know fans won’t quibble but anyone else will find things running out of gas about an hour in. There simply isn’t enough to hold the attention of anyone who isn’t fan. Then again I’m not sure this was made for anyone for anyone other than the diehards-or anyone who can be instantly converted.

Quibbles side this is definitely worth a look if only on the chance that you too might becomes a fan of Fred Lang

One of the great finds of the Oxford Film Festival.

HOLY GHOST FIRE: THE ECSTASY OF RANDY WOLFORD (2018) Oxford Film Festival 2019


Nicholas Laviola’s portrait of Randy Wolford’s final service is deeply disturbing. A Pentecostal Christian minister leading a service in a West Virginia park, things were going well until the snakes were brought out and one of them bit him after he had drunk some poison. We watch as the service continues, some try to heal him and the poison slowly takes him.

It is one of the most disturbing experiences that I’ve ever had watching the film. You will forgive me I don’t like to watch people die. In large part my unease is due to the fact that I had thought this was going to be a conventional exploration of the events on that May day in 2012. I didn’t think that the film was going to be the service with some other footage mixed in. There is no commentary, just the service with images of the land in and around where the tragedy went down. With no guidance we are left to ponder what it all means.

A week on I’m still pondering.

I really don’t know what to say. This is an alien world to me. I can’t imagine just leaving someone to die when help could be at hand. That is of course my choice and not the choice of the late Mr. Wolford. His faith took a different path than mine. Watching Wolford go down that path raises all sorts of issues that I am wrestling with still.

Because I still am pondering the film I don’t know if its good bad or indifferent. It is most certainly one of a kind. I don’t know if this is something you’ll want to see or not. Yes it will raise issues, Yes it is an experience. You’ll have to decide f you want to go there.

Easily one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in a long while.

Friday, February 8, 2019

THE DRONE (2019) Slamdance 2019

From Jordan Rubin the director of ZOMBEAVERS comes THE DRONE about the soul of a serial killer that takes over the drone he uses to spy on women with. Just because he's in a drone doesn't mean the killings stop and it's up to his ex-wife and her new husband to try and stop the carnage.

Nominally a horror comedy the scares aren't really there and the humor is almost as low as you can go. The jokes are more groaners than laugh out loud funny ones. While there are some laughs more often then not you will be shaking your head.

Best viewed if you are with a group of friends who are in the mood to riff a film, THE DRONE is a film that requires that you absolutely and completely disregard any sort of logic, even internal. I say that because  nothing in this film makes one lick of sense on any level. Yea, its a goofball horror comedy but we need to accept that a small drone can cause so much damage, even on it's own terms, for this to really work and THE DRONE never provides that. (How does it come through a hole in the wall smaller than it is? How does it fly up the cop's bottom? How does it chop people up with such tiny blades?)

Because I loved ZOMBEAVERS so much I went along to the end of THE DRONE but found I was disappointed at almost every turn. While it isn't bad, it just never manages to walk the fine line of horror/comedy without tripping and falling on it's face.

Oxford ’19: Body and Soul—An American Bridge

His name holds little recognition these days, even among serious jazz listeners, but Johnny Green won five Oscars for his film music and co-wrote several standards, including “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Out of Nowhere.” Yet, his best-known work is even more ubiquitous among jazz musicians’ repertoires. Robert Philipson chronicles the history and legacy of the beloved standard in the mid-length hour-long documentary, Body and Soul: An American Bridge, which screens during this year’s Oxford Film Festival.

Green original co-wrote “Body and Soul” with lyricists Edward Heyman and Robert Sour for British musical theater performer Gertrude Lawrence, but it soon became a jazz standard. Naturally, one of the first classic renditions came from Louis Armstrong, who really did everything in jazz first. There was also a historically significant recording by the racially-integrated Benny Goodman Trio, featuring the great Teddy Wilson on piano. However, Coleman Hawkins’ legendary recording of “Body and Soul,” which most jazz historians consider the transitional link between swing and bebop is only mentioned in passing. Frankly, that is beyond bizarre, because we were eagerly anticipating a long discussion of Hawk (it isn’t perfect, but Ken Burns’ Jazz gets this right).

Still, Philipson deserves credit for giving Benny Goodman credit for sticking his neck out to lead his racially integrated trio (which became a quartet when he added Lionel Hampton on vibes). It is fashionable to mock Goodman for his legendary penny-pinching and the withering glare, dubbed “the ray,” he leveled at bandmembers who displeased him, but he took a risk and became an agent of progressive change in this country.

Instead of a bridge between swing and bebop, Philipson positions “Body and Soul” as a bridge between Jewish and African American musicians. He certainly has a strong case to make, but “Body and Soul” is hardly unique in this respect. After all, George Gershwin composed Porgy and Bess and Irving Berlin penned standards like “How Deep is the Ocean.” There are plenty of songs that could represent that sort of connection, but it almost always happens through jazz.

Regardless, any film that discusses Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Teddy Wilson at length is totally worth seeing. The best-known musicians Philipson interviews on-camera are probably NEA Jazz Master bassist Richard Davis and Loren Schoenburg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, who certainly know their stuff, but like it or not, no Marsalises this time around. Recommended for fans of pre-modern (swing, New Orleans) jazz, Body and Soul: An American Bridge screens this Sunday (2/10) as part of the 2019 Oxford Film Festival.

This World Alone (2018) Oxford Film Festival 2019

After The Fall, some great cataclysm that wiped out most of humanity, Sam, teenage girl lives in the wilderness with her mom and another woman. Taking care of hat has to done they feed their souls on books. However she feels the need to go out and see the world. A long the way she meets a young man out journeying.

A good cast and nice sense of the world almost make up for a plot line that has been done to death. We've been here before any number of times over the last few years even including the religious zealots (last year's's WHAT STILL REMAINS comes to mind)). Five minutes into the film you will know exactly how this is going to go and it will break your heart. Its not you will be heartbroken by a bad film, but rather that a film that can create such a wonderful world with such a good cast squanders it by taking the most traveled path.

To be fair how you react to this film will be determined by how many variations of this plot you've seen. If you've watched more than one or two your enjoyment level will be mitigated by the familiarity. If you haven't seen many or are about Sam's age odds are you will eat this up.

A near miss.

Lords of Chaos (2018)

Steve here with a quick note. 

After I saw that Lord of Chaos I sent an email to Eden to ask what she thought of the film. I was curious because she's familiar enough with the Black Metal scene that I wanted to know her take. She hadn't seen it yet so when the film’s release was announced I arranged for her to see the film because I feel her perspective, as someone who is familiar with the music, the events and life adds a great deal to how we should see the film.

What follows is her thoughts on the film.

In a voiceover that starts off Lords of Chaos, Euronymous (Rory Culkin) says this will end badly for him.

If you’ve heard of black metal, this is probably the one story you know about it -- a band called Mayhem whose history involved a bloody suicide, church burnings and an eventually murder.

To be fair, it’s not like Norwegian black metal is all puppies and kittens -- far from it. The music is heavy and often deals with a lot of darker issues. And certainly, this story has the most drama, but it just reinforces everyone’s worst opinions of what black metal is.

On the surface, Jonas Åkerlund is not a bad choice to tell this story. He was in black metal band Bathory early in its history and he clearly has experience in the music industry and an affection for darker imagery. Strangely, though, it’s impossible to tell where his sympathy lies here. Lords of Chaos is all over the place, tonally. Sometimes it seems like he’s expressing great empathy for these kids whose lives just ran away with them; other times it seems like he’s cruelly mocking them for being self-involved idiots. While it would be fine if the movie landed somewhere in between the two, it just mostly feels like Åkerland couldn’t make up his mind. Consequently, I really felt nothing -- neither pity nor contempt.

I think the suicide of Dead (Jack Kilmer) is a great representation of this. Dead is supposed to be fascinating and magnetic but he’s not in the movie long enough for us to care about him. His bloody suicide, which should be emotional, goes on too long and just seems to revel in the gory special effects.

It also never dives deep enough into what they were rebelling against. Norway did have a state church at the time, and these characters had privileged backgrounds (Eronymous’ dad helped him open his record store; Varg’s mom loaned him money to record his album) but we’re never given a clear sense about what they were angry about, specifically. We don’t know why black metal came out of this environment.

There are glimpses of what this movie could be when they’re just hanging out eating shawarma or drinking in bars. Those brief insights remind us that these are real people. Even Varg (Emory Cohen) starting out as a shy poser who wants to hang with the cool kids feels real … until it doesn’t.

It’s at least a stylish movie. Åkerlund has a great visual eye and while some of his music-video tricks are restrained here, he gives it a dynamic pace. The first half feels stronger than the first, though, and the second half feels like it’s just moving all the pieces into place for the inevitable outcome.

And speaking of that, Euronymous’ killing at the hands of Varg is surprisingly emotional, but even the effect of that is minimized by how long its dragged out. The movie didn’t build the relationships strong enough for us to fully care. Euronymous is dead and Varg goes to jail. Black metal lives on. Or something.

Ultimately, I’m not sure who this is movie is for. If you already know the story, it’s not going to offer any more insights into who these people were or the whys of black metal and it may actively offend you. If you don’t already know the story, the moral seems to be “black metal is bad,” which seems like a weird takeaway coming from Åkerlund.

Black metal is about more than that “one psycho and a few confused kids” (as someone I know concisely put it) but Lords of Chaos will leave you thinking that’s all there is. And that’s a shame. I can only hope it inspires people to read more about and listen more. I know I did want to go listen to more black metal after I watched this. At least there’s that.

(It’s a bit hard to find, but I recommend Icelandic movie Metalhead from 2013, about a young woman connecting with black metal after a family tragedy. It feels more true to life than this supposed “true life” story.)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Slip Road (2019) Slamdance 2019

Raphael Dubois’ SLIP ROAD is a small gem. A moody creepy confection it chills and makes you want to see more.

The film has a young man drive into a forest to meet a being to seal a deal. He drives and encounters souls on the road. What it all means is for you to decide.

It is a stunning film that raises more questions than it answers. I want to know more. I want this expanded into a feature, but while I want to know more, I am afraid that knowing more might wreck the magic of this small treasure.

To that end why don’t we just give Dubois enough money to make a feature and go with what is next. If we do that we can keep the wonder of SLIP ROAD and then see something even more wondrous and new from a young man who is going to make some great stuff in the future.

Ghost Light (2018) Oxford Film Festival 2019

It is very difficult to do a horror comedy or comedy horror film well. The trick in balancing the laugh and scares isn’t one many people know with the result that most films trying to be funny scary tend to be neither. When it works the films are absolute delights, which is what Ghost Light is, an absolute delight.

The film follows a traveling troop of actors who go to an out of the way summer stock theater in Massachusetts. The plan is for them is to reopen the theater with a production of Macbeth. When one of the actors doesn’t take care to follow the rituals concerning the play things go horribly wrong.

Once the film gets past an over explanation of the play’s curse, it just goes, managing to be both very funny and frequently chilly as the film earns its self-imposed description as a dark comedy. (Remember this is a horror comedy so bad things happen).

That the film works as well as it does is due entirely to the top flight cast. Filled with great actors like Cary Elwes, Carol Kane, Roger Bart, Steve Tom, Sheldon Best,  Tom Riley and Danielle Campbell who suck us in and drag us along through the spooky proceedings past all the bumps in the plotting. Particularly wondrous is Carol Kane. As someone whose mental picture of her is her wild and crazy comedies, he role here hearkens back to her early dramatic work in films like Hester Street. Yes, she is funny, but she is also so spot on with the drama that I think this maybe my new favorite memory of her.

I love this film. Yea I could probably nitpick bits of the plotting as things we’ve seen before, but since director John Stimpson manages to get the tone and the feel so right I’ll forgive any problems simply because it’s been much too long since any comedy raised goosebumps on my arms from the scares.

Highly recommended. Destined for a long life, Ghost Light is the opening film at the Oxford Film Festival and is highly recommended