Jul 15 2014

Videophiled: Scarlett Johansson gets ‘Under the Skin’

UnderSkin

Under the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.

This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.

Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and VOD at Cinephiled

Jul 15 2014

Barry Jenkins: Long Story Short

Barry Jenkins currently calls San Francisco home but he was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Claxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That’s where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he’s continued to make short films.

'Tall Enough'

“I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself,” he explains. “The majority of these films, and I guess it’s how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying ‘Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?’ and me going, ‘Sure, I’ll make something.’ I’m never going to turn down an opportunity to make something.”

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Jul 14 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Sleep My Love’

A romantic thriller in the Gaslight vein, Sleep, My Love (1948) is a shadowy melodrama with an atmosphere of Gothic thriller by way of high society film noir, and it grabs your attention immediately with a kicker of an opening: a train speeding through the night, Claudette Colbert waking up in a sleeping car with a scream, a panicked run through the passenger cars. Where is she, how did she get on a night train to Washing D.C., what is happening? Colbert is New York heiress Alison Courtland and, back in their Big Apple mansion, Don Ameche is her husband Richard, a man with a plan under his sensitive show of concern. As he patiently explains the police, this isn’t the first incident where she’s been disoriented or confused. And as the police prod him for details, he reluctantly reveals a gunshot wound on his left arm. Yes, he admits, she shot him, but she wasn’t in her right mind.

Richard seems too good to be true as the concerned, protective husband trying to cover for his wife’s mental slips, in part thanks to Ameche’s overly-earnest performance and theatrically soft-spoken response to every crisis. And he is, as we discover early in the drama. The train trip and public breakdown is part of an elaborate scheme, a piece of theater stage managed by the sinister-looking Charles Vernay (Orson Welles veteran George Coulouris). He’s a co-conspirator, pulling strings while Richard plays the nurturing husband, and he even endures the unwanted presence of Richard’s sexy mistress Daphne (Hazel Brooks), who lounges about Charles’s photography studio between romantic assignations.

Continuing the Gaslight comparison, with Colbert in the Bergman role of the heiress being driven crazy and Ameche as the husband playing the mind-games, Robert Cummings would be her Joseph Cotten, in this case incarnated as handsome bachelor Bruce Elcott.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 12 2014

Blu-ray: ‘The Nutty Professor’ 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.

Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.

Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 12 2014

DVD: ‘The People vs. Paul Crump’

Paul Crump, an African American Chicago man convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a meatpacking plant and sentenced to death in 1953, had faced 14 stays of execution when William Friedkin, a young television producer, took on his story. The People vs. Paul Crump became his directorial debut, a documentary that eschews any pretense of balance and instead makes Crump’s case directly to the viewers. This is documentary as advocacy, championing a cause with passionate and persuasive filmmaking, and the filmmaking is indeed provocative and compelling. The first shot of the film, an evocative shot of Crump leaning against the prison bars of his cell while another inmate blows a harmonica, comes right out of a social drama of injustice, immediately putting our sympathies with Crump.

It starts conventionally enough, with newspaper reporter John Justin Smith narrating in hardboiled newsman mode as he outlines Crump’s case with a mix of historical fact and personal connection. Smith introduces us the man behind the story in an interview that plays out like an old movie, with Smith hammering questions at Crump like a tough but committed investigative reporter grilling an indicted politician, skeptical but moved by the testimony and the compromised evidence against him. Crump comes off calm and measured in his responses and his confessions of other crimes and failings give the ring to truth to his account of events. Then Friedkin jumps from the static new newsreel interview style to a stylized recreation of the crime with actors playing out the robbery on the actual locations. Friedkin shoots it with a mobile handheld camera, a cinema verité style by way of a B-movie crime thriller or hard-hitting exploitation exposé.

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Jul 09 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Il Sorpasso’

Vittorio Gassman is a force of nature in Dino Risi’s 1962 road movie Il Soprasso, an odd couple odyssey that begins on a whim and drives off into one long detour from the staid, serious, self-repressed life of a bookish law student. Gassman’s Bruno roars into the film, screeching his Lancia Aurelia convertible through the all but deserted streets of Rome, which is practically shut down for the summer holiday, searching for cigarettes and a pay phone while Riz Ortolani’s jazzy score bounces through the background. It’s all high spirits and impulse behavior and this swinging bachelor seems destined to pull the shy, suspicious Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) from his apartment, where he’s cramming for finals, and out into the world. What begins as a quick drive to a bar for a drink turns into a road movie that carries them through a couple of days bouncing from one restaurant to another and finally landing at the shore for a sunny beach escape.

Director Dino Risi was a prolific and popular director and one of the masters of the commedia all’italiana, the witty, earthy comedies and social satires that were hugely popular in Italy but overshadowed internationally by the “serious” works of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini and others. Il Sorpasso was his breakthrough film, a lively road movie and a deft character piece. The title Il Soprasso is an Italian term for passing cars on the road, a defining action in the film as speed demon Bruno constantly overtakes cars on the highway like it was a road race. It was released in the U.S. under the title The Easy Life, which works too, but the original title is about rushing to the next thing, to living in the fast lane and rushing past the crowd.

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Jul 08 2014

Videophiled: Imagining ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

JodorowskyDune

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Cable VOD) is probably not “the greatest science film never made,” as the movie poster tagline insists, but this journey through the most improbable screen epic embarked upon in the seventies isn’t really about mourning what could have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the aggressively trippy cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, is a spellbinder of a storyteller and it’s not hard to get caught up in the vision he spins of his dream adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel, which he and his producer, Michel Seydoux, managed to option. With his artistic idealism and beaming smile (the man lights up with creative energy whenever he starts describing his vision of the film), Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is intoxicating. It’s no wonder he attracted such a passionately loyal and dedicated team of collaborators—his “warriors,” as he called them—along the way, including artists Jean “Moebius” Girard, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, special effects designer Dan O’Bannon, and actors Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali.

If filmmaker Frank Pavich gets caught up in the dreams of the Jodorowsky and his warriors and the hyperbole of commentators like Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn, filmmakers who proclaim the project some kind of lost masterpiece so visionary that Hollywood was scared of the possibilities, he at least gives voice to the more measured response of the Hollywood studios via producer Gary Kurtz. Any practical look at the project finds a rickety foundation built on promises rather than contracts, a budget insufficient to meet the scope of Jodorowsky’s ideas, and elaborate special effects beyond anything Hollywood would accomplish for years to come. And that doesn’t even address Jodorowsky’s utter dismissal of studio concerns of his ability to create a commercial film for the millions of dollars he was asking for. He was ready to make a 12-hour epic if that’s what his muse demanded.

What’s most interesting is not that the project failed to get made but that it got as far as it did and Jodorowsky and Pavich let us revel in the conceptual art, costume and character designs, storyboards, musical concepts and other elements that Jodorowsky pulled together for his presentation. He gives us an art movie of a space opera with a spiritual message and a mad poetry to its execution. And rather than treat this as a wake for a stillborn film (as many of the interview subjects do), Jodorowsky celebrates the entire endeavor as a creative effort in its own right, which inspired ideas that he used in other projects. It’s unlikely that he could have brought to the screen anything resembling the grand vision he shares with us given his resources and the technology of the era, but it sure is exciting it imagine, and that imagination is what powers the film: the sense of artistic freedom, idealism, freewheeling creativity at work in the preparation, and the excitement he raised in his warriors, inspiring them to imagine beyond what had been done before. That is a work of art in its own right.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo also includes 46 minutes of deleted scenes, or rather expanded sections that explore elements of the project in more detail than the finished film allows.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jul 07 2014

Uncertainty and the Making of ‘Boyhood’ – Richard Linklater interviewed

“I’ve been lucky. I’ve made a lot of what, on paper, looks like a wide range of different type of things but they were just all stories I was really interested in telling. It’s a storytelling medium and I’m lucky to tell a variety of stories. But I never put a limit on myself. We’re limited enough in the world as it is.”

'Boyhood'

Richard Linklater made a splash with the micro-budget collaborative indie Slacker (1991) and followed it up with the evocative high school time capsule Dazed and Confused (1993) has never stopped trying new things. Even while he’s flirted with mainstream comedy in School of Rock (2003) and Bad News Bears (2005), he keeps returning to his indie roots, experimenting with DIY animation, documentary and oddball fiction / non-fiction hybrids like Fast Food Nation (2006). And he is one of the most collaborative filmmakers in American cinema. After exploring the brief connection between two young adults in Vienna in Before Sunrise, he reunited with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to revisit the characters later in life, collaborating with his stars on the scripts for Before Sunset and Before Midnight to further explore characters and their lives and relationship evolved over the years. What began as a stand-alone film turned into a continuing meditation on the nature of individuals and relationships over time.

Before he embarked on Before Sunset, however, Linklater had already begun an even more unconventional project: Boyhood, a film that covers twelve years in the life of a boy (and to a less extent his older sister) growing up in Texas, from first grade to arrival at college.

Continue reading at Fandor

Jul 07 2014

Fab film at 50: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The rock movie was never the same after A Hard Day’s Night opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.


Before A Hard Day’s Night, there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the “Beach Party” model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.

A Hard Day’s Night was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn’t how they were in real life, it’s how we wanted them to be.

Continue reading at Today Entertainment

Jul 06 2014

Hal Hartley Explores New Voices in ‘My America’

In 2012, Baltimore’s Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by soliciting scores of American playwrights, both established veterans and emerging voices, to answer the question “What is my America?” with a short monologue. Fifty pieces were ultimately commissioned and director Hal Hartley filmed them all for Center Stage. Twenty-one of these pieces are woven into the feature My America.

'My America'

This is not a collection of Hartley film shorts, at least not in the way we think of a “Hal Hartley” film. Whether working in short film or feature-length modes, Hartley’s voice is unmistakable and he put his camera in service to the word, or more precisely the lively, playful interplay of words. Imagine a college grad student’s reworking of a screwball comedy with a deadpan approach and Godard-ian flourishes. Conversation, debate, argument, lecture, philosophical musing, and the odd poetry of intellectual discourse in the measured cadences of call and response and cyclical talk, those are the heart of Hartley’s cinema and until now he’s written his own screenplays.

My America, a collection of monologues, raps and one-way conversations by American playwrights grappling in one form or another with the identity, the dreams and the realities of the American citizen, is Hartley engaging with other voices.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Jul 06 2014

DVD: ‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’

“Do I have any lines? I don’t want any lines. How about I do nothing? How about silence?”

Harry Dean Stanton, the veteran character actor with (by his own count) over 250 film appearances to his credit, would rather not talk about himself. Or about his family, his life, his career, or the craft of acting. Which makes him a curious subject for a documentary. Director Sophie Huber follows him around Los Angeles, films him hanging out at his favorite L.A. bar, Dan Tana’s, where he’s known the bartender for more than 40 years, and shoots him in his home singing folk songs and standards between sessions trying to get the actor to open up.

“How would you describe yourself?” asks friend and frequent director David Lynch. “There is no self,” he answers, his craggy, lined face maintaining a nearly unreadable stoniness. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” He’s not simply an actor with nothing to prove. He’s a private man who prefers to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself and a few chosen friends. Stanton opens up a little over coffee and cigarettes with Lynch, who makes a game of lobbing questions from a card provided by Huber and then spins off in remembrances of their long history together, and he eases into reminiscing with Kris Kristofferson, who credits Stanton for his first film role in Cisco Pike and then launches into his iconic song “The Pilgrim”: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker. He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher. He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.” Stanton was one of the inspirations for those lyrics, according to Kristofferson, along with a few others, and the two start checking off all those early seventies characters who fit the bill.

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Jul 05 2014

Blu-ray: ‘Sorcerer’

“Despite all the problems and setbacks, bruised egos and shattered friendships, I felt then and still do that Sorcerer is the best film I’ve made.” – William Friedkin

After William Friedkin’s career took off with the consecutive successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), he used his clout to make a passion project, a reworking of Henri-George Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) (Friedkin insists that it’s not a remake) that he rather abstractly titled Sorcerer, named after one of the two trucks that set out across treacherous jungle roads with a cargo of unstable dynamite in the back.

It was a resounding commercial failure and it took the luster off of Friedkin’s golden boy image. Forty years later it’s being heralded, at least in some quarters, as an overlooked masterpiece. Distance, along with the film’s unavailability for well over a decade, has allowed viewers to return to it with fresh eyes and a better understanding of Friedkin. I’m not part of the “masterpiece” chorus, at least not to the extent of The French Connection, but I find a terrible, beautiful power in the film’s primal imagery and almost abstracted conflict of man and nature. Like Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate and other passion projects by seventies filmmakers that spun out of control in a perfect storm of ambition, obsession, arrogance, and bad luck, Friedkin’s passion and commitment comes through in some superb filmmaking and riveting scenes and stunning imagery.

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