Review: The Concert

Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert is a film about the enduring repercussions of an act of Soviet anti-Semitism…sort of.  At times it’s actually more of a comedy about a group of shabby, loud Russian musicians horrifying the starchy Parisian artistic establishment.   It’s also a familial drama in which a young woman finds her roots and a father figure through the power of music.  In short, The Concert is a few too many things.  

 

That said, it’s a difficult film to dislike. Its appealing hero Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov), one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, had been fired under Brezhnev for protecting his Jewish musicians.  In the middle of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, a Communist lackey stormed onto the stage and snapped his baton in half.  Now, decades later, the Soviet regime has fallen, but Filipov is still scrabbling together a lowly existence as a janitor where he once conducted.  

 

Then, in the first of a series of improbable strokes of luck, Filipov intercepts an invitation for the Bolshoi to perform at the Châtelet Theater in Paris.  He decides to perpetrate what must be the most admirably-intentioned scam ever conceived in the art world: to reassemble his long-languishing ex-orchestra members, bring them to Paris posing as the real Bolshoi, and finish the concert that was interrupted thirty years ago.  

 

The early scenes play farcically, though anchored by Filipov’s sincerity, as the conductor and his cellist best friend Sacha (Dmitri Nazarov) gather the dissolved orchestra.  Broad, if affectionate, stereotypes predominate: a yarmulke-sporting clarinetist who agrees to the venture when Filipov promises that Parisian Catholics have all secularized and the city features “a synagogue on every street”; a roguish gypsy violinist who turns his audition into a riotous dance.   Everything seems to go smoothly, because for this film musical talent is more or less a divine spark that never diminishes even after thirty years of dormancy.  None of the musicians fail their impromptu auditions–not even the ones who pawned their instruments long ago.  

 

But once in France, the impoverished Russians terrify the Châtelet’s administrators with their brawls, irrational demands and general penchant for mayhem, before sauntering away–bellowing drunkenly, of course–into the Parisian night.  It seems Sacha and Filipov were the only ones truly determined to put on a show.  Everyone else was just desperate for a pass out of Russia.  Can Filipov awaken the love of music within the hearts of his errant musicians and save the faux-Bolshoi Orchestra?

 

Silly question. It wouldn’t be much of a comedy otherwise.  But Mihaileanu makes a strange decision: in an attempt to deal with the tragic backstory, he steers his movie into melodrama.  Filipov has requested Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), a French classical music star and prodigy, for the Tchaikovsky solo.  His reasons for picking her are soon revealed to be more complex than artistic admiration.  Anne-Marie has a mysterious connection with the past, and she seems essential to the conductor’s recreation of the ruined concert of long ago.  I won’t say more on why this is so, although the script makes it a little too easy to guess.  But the film needs all of Guskov’s appeal to smooth over this odd mood change as Filipov the underdog turns into Filipov the haunted genius.  

 A smoother script would have helped, but even the best comedy writers would have trouble fitting a terrible story of political persecution into the relatively contained frame that The Concert provides for its backstory.  Not that humor isn’t allowed to touch the worst of the twentieth century.  But The Concert simply doesn’t have room for the emotions that stories about anti-Semitism and repression evoke.  It’d rather supply us a sentimental, nonsensical reward for our brush with the past.    

 Luckily, the payoff sort of works. How many films trumpet the power of our cultural heritage to liberate and unite us? It won’t spoil The Concert to say that it climaxes with the most insane optimism on film since Disney movies dropped their once-perfunctory closing rainbows and off-screen choirs. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto causes French snobs to throw roses in slow motion, jaded professional critics to dissolve into ecstatic tears, Communists to believe in God, closeted men to kiss each other in helpless rapture, etc.  Mihaileanu’s standard of restraint means not showing an entire audience having a collective, musically-induced orgasm.  

 The Concert is a peculiar film, and not a great one, but its fantasy is temptingly innocent.  Like its hero, it wants us to love Tchaikovsky.  I can’t resent it much for that.  

 

-Julia Zelman

 

Directed by Radu Mihaileanu; written by Mihaileanu, Alan-Michel Blanc and Matthew Robbins,; director of photography, Laurent Dailland; edited by Ludovic Troch; music by Armand Amar; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.                

 

 

Interview with Ken Winokur – 3 Silent Classics of Josef von Sternberg

3SilentClassicsDVDA few weeks ago, Criterion released an excellent box set–a collection of early Josef von Sternberg films.  They are a must own for anyone interested in cinema, especially in this new incarnation.  The set contains commentaries, documentaries, essays, and two brand new scores from the Alloy Orchestra.  I had the opportunity to catch up with Ken Winokur about their contribution to the films, what they’ve been working on, and what’s next.

-Rob Ribera

1.  How did the Alloy Orchestra get involved in the project?

I was talking to Barry Allen at Paramount about working with a different Paramount film Beggars of Life, and he mentioned that they had some other films, including Underworld and suggested that we might want to consider them. I was familiar with Underworld and immediately jumped on the idea.  I called the NY Film Festival and set up a show within 20 minutes.

2.  What was the process for restoring the print of the Last Command with Paramount?  Why this film?

I don’t know anything about the restoration.  They made a new print for us to use, but it was off an existing negative.

3. Were there any music cues already available for these two films (like for Man with a Movie Camera or Metropolis)?

Only the Russian national anthem which we used in Last Command.  We did a little research to make sure we were using the correct one (there were many).

4. How to you incorporate these cues when they exist already into your own style?

We took that cue (which we found on the web) and translated it from an orchestral score to a piano score with percussion.  Not a very big change, but since there was a piano player on screen, we needed to match the sound.

5. Do you try to make any references to previous material?

No, we start fresh with every film, and don’t reference original scores that might be available.

6. Your type of music is very unique, is it sometimes difficult to match up to certain films?

We adjust our style to the film.  There’s almost no similarity between our Metropolis score and Underworld.  Chang is mostly percussion and sounds like a traditional Thai music group.  But, the really subtle films, which require a very quiet and melodic score, can be difficult for us.  The two percussionists have to be extremely restrained, and more than not we end up playing our second instruments (accordion and clarinet) instead of percussion.

7. Where do you find the objects you use?  What is the most unique “instrument” that you get to bang on or get to make noise during a concert?

I’ve been collecting objects for over 30 years.  We have quite a storehouse of stuff at this point.  We went to junkyards for a while and got a large amount of stuff.  The horseshoes were sent to me by my wife from a trip to New Mexico.  One of the bells we use, was sent to me by my Mom from a trip to Japan.  The bedpan, which replaces an older one that got too smashed up, was liberated from a closet at Mass General Hospital.  The pans we have on the tabletop were part of a plate storage table from a restaurant that Terry brought home when they were throwing them out.  The bent metal sheet was found on the streets of NY during our dinner break before a show.  The objects wait for us, we just bring them to their proper home.

8. How does it feel to add a new layer of experience to what is considered the first gangster film?

We love Underworld.  It’s a film that I had earmarked a decade ago as one that would be nice to score.  We were really excited when it became available through Paramount.  It’s a style that comes quite naturally to us.  We always seem to gravitate to the darker films, and especially ones that have a modern sense of the ambiguity of the difference between good and evil.  Hitchcock’s Blackmail is another example of this.  It’s funny, but audiences all seem to relate to the gangster myth, and Alloy is no different.  The gangster is the ultimate outsider.  In Underworld, he is a crook and ultimately a killer, but he’s also a Godfather figure – taking care of his community and acting as an alternate authority to the cops and government.

9. Emil Jannings has such an incredible screen presence.  His acting clearly tries to compensate for the lack of dialogue–how did you adjust to that when creating the score?

We always gravitate to dramatic (as I was saying about Underworld).  It’s just the nature of the styles of music that we enjoy.  Our music is bold, and it fits well to the bold acting of Emil Jannings

10. You’ve recently re-scored Metropolis after the discovery of even more lost material–what was it like to revisit the film?  Did you need to come up with entirely new cues for some characters that have more prominence now?

My first response was, “Not again.”  We had done something like 500 performances of the previous versions, and had stopped doing Metropolis.   We hadn’t rewritten our score to go with the last version, and because of copyright issues, we couldn’t use the previous versions we already knew.  But once it sunk in that this was going to be restored and put out, and after I found that we were going to be allowed to work with the new restoration, my response was, “Oh god, this is going to be miserably long and boring.”

It wasn’t until we had our first rehearsal that my attitude changed.  The first run through was so much fun!  Most of our scores are so restrained comparatively, that it was really a gas to be doing all that up tempo drumming again.

Although I got the sense from our rehearsals that the new cut of the film worked much better than the old ones, it wasn’t until the first performance, where I could see the audience response, that I could really tell that the new cut is so much more satisfying to the audience.  The continuity is restored and the editing has dramatically improved the timing.

It’s also clear to me that our new arrangement of our score is vastly better than the old ones.  Because the score was originally written very quickly, and contained lots of improvisations, there were lots of sections that weren’t finished or perfected.  Taking the score back into the studio and really examining every cue, writing new material, and reworking the old ones really led to a much tighter and more suitable accompaniment.

We wrote a couple new themes (one for the Thin Man) that are quite nice.  They are related to previous themes (like the mane theme) bit are new tunes. Mostly, though we just added bits and pieces to the previous themes.  Every cue took a step forward in complexity and sophistication – making them more satisfying as compositions and helping the ebb and flow of the film.

11.  How long does it usually take to finish a score–how long did these two take and what is the process?

We usually spend a year or so picking a film.  Then I watch it a bunch of times and write up a storyboard of the scenes, along with the timings.  We transfer the film to our computer.  Then we go through the film scene by scene and improvise ideas, recording everything in sync on the computer. When we have an idea we like, we move on to the next scene.  After that, it takes 2 – 3 months of composing and rehearsal.  We continually refine the score throughout the rehearsal period, so there’s really no end of the composition period.  When we get to the end, we back up and start over again, listening to what we’ve recorded and make improvements.  We do that again and again until we’re satisfied with our score.  We even continue to refine the score throughout the performances for years.

12. I’m also interested to know who you eventually would have to submit your music to, since there is no director to work with.

We are beholding to no one, and don’t need to get approval from anyone.  We used to do test screenings, but didn’t ultimately find them very useful.  Everybody had a different opinion about what worked best and what they would change.  Since there are 3 of us, we find that we are our own best critics.  I think that’s one of the strengths of composing collaboratively and not just relying one a single “genius” composer.

13. How would you compare your live shows and working in the studio for a DVD release?

There’s not much difference, except we can stop and do something over again.  Sometimes we record the whole score in a single take or two (as we did with Underworld).  Sometimes we do it scene by scene (like Last Command).

14. Who are the film composers you admire?  Who do you think is doing the most interesting work today?

I can name some names (Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota) but I really don’t listen that much to other film composers.  Because of our odd instrumentation, there’s no real possibility to take much from other composers.

15. What are you working on next?

Don’t know.

16.  What are some films that you’d like to write music for in the future?

Son of the Sheik, Variety, Ship of Lost Men, Beau Gest – there are many, but many have issues with copyright or access to the prints.

17. You’ll be performing at BU in November, what can the audience expect from your Nosferatu score?

Obviously, this one skews toward the creepy.  There’s an interesting combination of seductive melodies and some of the most discordant “tunes” we do.  There’s a lot of outright noise (particularly from the “column”—an air conditioning ductwork that makes a horrific screeching noise that we use for the ghoul himself.

Hereafter

One would expect Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, to be the chilling supernatural thriller advertised in the movie’s trailers.  With films like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino under his belt, surely Clint could capture the excitement and nightmarish intensity of a film concerned with questions of life after death.  Moreover, with a Peter Morgan screenplay (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Frost/Nixon), there should be no question of the film’s ability to mesmerize audiences.  However, despite the undeniable talents of the cast and crew, this thrill-less thriller does nothing for the genre.  At best, Hereafter is a sluggish drama only mildly interested in the idea of the afterlife. 

The film focuses on three characters, all strangers from different countries, who have recently experienced death.  Marie, a French journalist (played by Cecile De France), nearly drowns in a devastating tsunami that destroys an entire coastal city.  While being swept away by the ferocious wave, Marie loses consciousness and experiences what she believes to be the hereafter.  Marcus (played by Frankie and George McLaren), an introverted British schoolboy, becomes increasingly obsessed with the concept of the afterlife when he loses his twin brother in a tragic car accident.  Moreover, he must mourn the death of his brother in a temporary home while his heroin-addict mother goes to rehab.  Finally, George (Matt Damon) is a psychic from San Francisco who abandons his life of fame (or at least frequent recognition) when he can no longer cope with the perpetual sadness that accompanies his “gift.”  Individually, each character’s story is compelling, tragic, and beautiful, and deserving of its own film.  Together, the stories seem under-developed—there just isn’t enough time to give each plot the attention it warrants.  Yet the film moves so slowly that it is difficult to resist the temptation of checking the clock repeatedly to make sure time hasn’t stopped altogether.  It is as if there is too much going on and nothing happening at the same time. 

Peter Morgan’s Crash-like plot, where the individual stories eventually weave together to form one cohesive unit, is too safe.  Unlike true supernatural thrillers, such as The Sixth Sense and What Dreams May Come, Hereafter carefully avoids concrete speculations of an afterlife, effectively ignoring the—often controversial—supernatural issues that come into question in any worthwhile discussion of life after death.    Aside from George’s psychic ability, which he is reluctant to employ, and Marie’s brief vision of the hereafter, the film denies viewers the pleasure of conjecturing images of ghosts and hauntings.  Simply put, there is no suspense, tension, or fear. 

If these were the film’s only weaknesses, perhaps we could grant Clint a reprieve.  After all, even the best shooters miss the mark now and again.  However, the rudimentary problems with focus and sound mixing are unforgiveable, and the image of the afterlife presented in the film looks as if it was stolen out of the closing scene in Ghost (think heavy backlighting and human profiles).  Clint uses low-key lighting (read: hardly any lighting) during George’s psychic readings in an amateurish attempt to establish an eerie atmosphere, which leads this critic to believe that our director spent his whole budget on the over-the-top CGI tsunami scene that there wasn’t enough money left for proper lighting.  What is frustrating is not the deathly slow pacing or the lackluster performances (although it is a welcome change to see Damon let the gray go in this age-appropriate role), but rather that we can see the film’s potential to be a remarkable piece of cinema in the hands of a more-than-capable master like Clint Eastwood.  

 But perhaps we should not fault Clint, or even Peter Morgan, for the substandard Hereafter.  Instead, we must look to the mismanaged marketing of the film for the disparity between what we want to see in a film about the afterlife (released just in time for Halloween, no less) and what we are hoodwinked into watching.   A film with more product placements than character arcs, Hereafter fails to create tension or generate interest in its supposed subject.  But if you’re still looking for a film with suspense, frightening moments, and a bit of spectacle, maybe check out Jackass 3D instead. 

 

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Peter Morgan; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; original music by Clint Eastwood; production designer, James Murakami; produced by Clint Eastwood, Kathleen Kennedy, Robert Lorenz, Frank Marshall, Tim Moore, Peter Morgan, and Steven Spielberg; released by Warner Brothers.  Runtime: 129 min. 

With: Matt Damon (George), Frankie and George McLaren (Marcus/Jayson), Cecile De France (Marie Lelay), and Jay Mohr (Billy). 

Review by Melissa Cleary

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Craig is a 16-year-old high schooler about to commit suicide.  He rides his bike to the Brooklyn Bridge, and then carefully sets it down on the side of the road.  He begins to move to the edge of the bridge, balancing on a thin crossbeam high above the traffic.  He is prepared to end his pathetic life—a life in which he disappoints everyone he knows, including himself—when suddenly his mother asks him what he intends to do with his bike once he has hurled his body off the bridge.  His father is also concerned about his bike.  After all, it wasn’t cheap.  Craig’s little sister wants to know if she can have it after he dies.  Bizarre?  This opening to It’s Kind of a Funny Story sets the tone for the film: ultimately serious and provocative, but with a touch of the zany.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Sugar and Half Nelson) make it OK to laugh at mental illness in this creative new comedy.  However, the film goes beyond cheap shots at schizophrenics, questioning the issue of teenage depression.  It’s Kind of a Funny Story displays fresh filmmaking with an imaginative animation sequence, as well as a music video scene that could have inspired rock bands like Kiss in the early 80s. 

Overwhelmed with summer school applications and a desire to impress his father, a suicidal Craig (Keir Gilchrist from The United States of Tara) checks himself in to a psychiatric ward, where teenage and adult patients must reside together while the adolescent ward undergoes renovations.  Almost immediately upon arriving at the psych ward and meeting some of the patients (including his roommate, a middle-aged Egyptian who hasn’t left his bed for weeks), Craig miraculously feels better and is ready to return home.  When the psychiatrist informs him that he is required to stay for at least five days, the film seems to be heading into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted territory, where audiences question if the protagonist is “crazy enough” for a psychiatric ward.  The film suddenly seems familiar.  Then Zach Galifianakis comes onto the screen, playing Bobby, the self-appointed leader of the patients, and everything changes.

In many respects, Galifianakis recreates his character from The Hangover, an out-there kind of guy with hilarious one-liners.  Bobby’s dedication to the game of table tennis (don’t call it ping-pong), along with his know-it-all attitude, lead to well-earned laughs.  But we cannot laugh wholeheartedly, as every joke and physical gag is tainted with a touch of tragedy.  Bobby’s time on the ward is almost up, and he faces homelessness, as well as losing all contact with his young daughter, if he does not ace an interview for a placement in a group home.  Galifianakis gives a Robin Williams-esque performance, perfectly blending comedy and tragedy a la Patch Adams.  Bobby secures our sympathy, and, although a supporting character, his story often and inadvertently eclipses Craig’s situation.

But it would be foolish to suggest that Bobby deserves his own movie.  Instead, he serves as the perfect complement to Craig’s character.  In contrasting these two, the film questions the authenticity of Craig’s depression: is he really suicidal or is he overwhelmed with stress?   Where is the line between normal teenage feelings of insecurity and clinical depression?  In a scene of group musical therapy, the film answers our questions about Craig’s struggles when he sings Queen’s “Under Pressure.”  Although the song choice may be too obvious, the truthfulness of the lyrics finally provides him with the right words to express himself, which has been his problem throughout the film.

Despite a witty script, the film falls into the trap of sentimentality at the film’s conclusion.  To be fair, Craig (who narrates) does warn us when it’s about to get schmaltzy.  While the concluding voiceover serves to tie all of the loose ends together—one of those ends being a romance between Craig and Noelle, a fellow teen patient in the adult ward, satisfactorily played by Emma Roberts—Bobby’s story is never properly resolved.  This is not an oversight in the screenplay, but instead is required by the overall tone of the film.  Boden and Fleck want us to chuckle and chortle, but they deny any gut-busting belly laughs in order to maintain the film’s serious undertone.  Dry humor is an ideal tool for dissecting the sensitive topics of suicide and mental illness, while also keeping the character-driven film from becoming preachy and heavy-handed.  Who knew a film about suicide could be so much fun? 

 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story opens on October 8, 2010 and is rated PG-13.

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; screenplay by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; novel by Ned Vizzini; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Anna Boden; original music by Broken Social Scene; production designer, Beth Mickle; produced by Patrick Baker, Ben Browning, Michael Maher, Kevin Misher, Peter Rawlinson, and Jeremy Kipp Walker; released by Focus Features. 

With: Keir Gilchrist (Craig), Zach Galifianakis (Bobby), Emma Roberts (Noelle), Lauren Graham (Lynn), and Jim Gaffigan (George).

Review by Melissa Cleary

Ben Affleck and The Town

While there is no doubt that Ben Affleck has a contagious sense of Boston pride that would make even New Yorkers want to start neglecting their “R”s and donning Red Sox jerseys, his films are not exactly love letters to the city.  His past projects, Gone Baby Gone and Good Will Hunting, dumpster-dive into the sketchy worlds of Boston’s criminals, junkies, and low-lives.  The actor/writer/director’s most recent work, The Town, follows suit, depicting a group of bank robbers from the projects of Charlestown.  Although he has only two feature films under his director belt, the Triple Threat’s signature is not only legible, but also distinct.   While some of his choices as an actor have been suspect (naturally, Surviving Christmas, Jersey Girl, and the infamous Gigli come to mind), as a director, Affleck shows maturity and, what is more, promise. 

In the crime thriller The Town, Affleck plays Doug MacRay, the brains (and brawn) of a group of Charlestown criminals, who falls in love with a hostage from one of the crew’s bank robberies.  But just as he decides to hang up his AK 47 and quit his life of crime, he is forced to complete a final job: robbing Fenway Park, the “cathedral of Boston.”  Although the “one last job” plot has been done before (think Public Enemies or Heat), The Town never seems like a re-hashing or mash-up of previous films due to the strength of its supporting cast. 

Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), who plays Doug’s impulsive and violent friend Jim, is the true star of the film, a gritty yet loyal character (loyal to Doug and loyal to Charlestown) that we fear and admire at the same time.   Jon Hamm is not the dapper Don Draper we see on Mad Men, as he plays the scruffy Agent Frawley, an FBI agent determined to put the crew behind bars for their string of robberies.  Blake Lively, in a departure from her wholesome Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants role, plays Krista, Doug’s coke-addict ex-girlfriend.  Although the performance is flawed at times, the role is clearly a strategic move on Blakely’s part to demonstrate that she is capable of and ready for serious dramatic roles.  Even Chris Cooper gives us chills as Doug’s incarcerated father, a legend in Charlestown for his crimes, although he has only one scene. 

More importantly, like a skilled portrait artist, Affleck has the ability to represent the personality of a Boston neighborhood without reverting to caricature or stereotypes.  In The Town, Gone Baby Gone, and Good Will Hunting (although Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting, the film deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of Affleck’s work as a filmmaker due to his great contribution and influence as writer), Charlestown, Dorchester, and Southie (respectively) become supporting characters.  However, these films share more than low-key lighting and remarkable aerial shots of the city; class-consciousness and an anti-authoritarian attitude reside in each of Affleck’s films, and we would need a Venn diagram to explore the many similarities between his works. 

In The Town, Jim accuses Doug of feeling somehow better than the other crew members because of his desire to leave Charlestown, and even Doug’s sobriety becomes a kind of moral arrogance to his friends.  In Affleck’s film worlds, any attempt to better oneself is considered a rejection of one’s background or class by the others in the neighborhood.  Gone Baby Gone deals with the protagonist’s supposed economic superiority, while Good Will Hunting explores intellectual superiority.  From this mentality, it is a short fall to anti-authoritarianism, which Affleck captures perfectly through his depiction of the Boston Police.   Not only are the courts flawed and the cops corrupted in his films, but the BPD is portrayed as inept and clueless, particularly in The Town, where a cop literally looks the other way to allow the crew to escape from a robbery gone wrong.  Instead, Affleck’s characters possess their own sense of justice, which they carry out in questionable means. 

But if these themes sound familiar and over-examined, don’t be too hasty in discounting Ben Affleck as an auteur.  Although he is continuing to develop stylistically (give him a break, he has only done two features), his work as a director mirrors his character’s robberies in The Town: well-planned, efficiently executed, with just enough room for chance and creativity.  For my money, I hope Affleck’s Boston pride is for life.  No need for filmic love letters to his beloved city—he isn’t Woody Allen now. 

 

The Town directed by Ben Affleck; screenplay by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, and Aaron Stockard; based on novel Price of Thieves by Chuck Hogan; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; original music by David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Sharon Seymour; produced by Chay Carter, David Crockett, Basil Iwanyk, Jon Jashni, Graham King, Kevin McCormick, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.  Running time: 125 min. 

Review by Melissa Cleary

DVD Review: Paths of Glory

paths-of-glory-the-criterion-collectionIn the span of two months Criterion has given us two of the best American war films ever made.  And again, as with some of the best films about combat, it balances the destruction on and off the battlefield.  Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the trials of three soldiers accused of desertion during a clearly futile attack on the battlefields during World War I, is a visual chess match, the quagmire of the trenches moved to the no-less stalemated courtroom.  Opening with some of the best scenes of war yet committed to film, it quickly descends into the palatial headquarters of a war and the dark basements of a prison cell.  The new bluray from the Criterion Collection does more than clean up the images; it sheds new light on the production and the man behind the camera.

Defending the men is Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas in the prime of his acting and producing days.  Made at a time when the star as producer days were making a resurgence in Hollywood, Douglas’ involvement not only secured its production, but also altered its story ever so slightly from the novel and stage versions.  As we learn from the essay by James Naremore, the gift of Douglas’ bare chest is just one of the alterations.  We also get more of a hero out of Douglas than might be expected, especially considering Kubruck’s output after his two films with the leading man.  Yet the film remains a masterpiece, examining the heroism of war, the sad destruction of lives on the firing line, and the glimmers of hope that float on a song.  It is a must own.

Of the extras, primary is the restoration of course.  One of the few Kubrick films made before his partnership with Warner Brothers still awaiting the deluxe treatment, the image is now even more refined that previous releases.  And all the better to see Kubrick’s masterful direction.  The tracking shots over the trenches are as beautiful and grotesque as ever.  The shots through the trenches themselves are all the more claustrophobic.

But there is more of course.  Christiane Kubrick offers her own retelling of the production, taking us through her own life at the time and her casting.  She even explains how it was she who picked that final, heartbreaking song to sing.  Also included here is a lengthy television interview with Kirk Douglas, in which he is quite candid about his work with Kubrick both on set and off.

In the end, I tend to agree with Christiane Kubrick.  There is some hope to be found in Kubrick’s films.  Paths of Glory might be his first full expression of both the crippling manifestations of modernity, the machines of war and society, and the sense of entrapment we feel.  True, these visions are scary and oftentimes cold.  The chessboards, the computers, the city, war—stark, dark places all.  The small, insignificant human being, when thrown against this backdrop seems all but lost.  And then Christiane sings.  A shred of humanity shines through.  Of course Kubrick knows better than to let this scene linger; the close-ups of soldiers’ faces are all too brief, albeit striking.  But the scene remains one of intensely shared community.  It may be a scene of loss, of homesickness for a warm bed and family, or even just the comfort of a beautiful woman.  It is certainly a scene of beauty and horror, as we know these men have already been called back to the line.  We now have the opportunity to see the film in the best way yet possible, the frontlines brought to us in stunning quality, sometimes too horrible to behold.

-Rob Ribera

DVD Review: The Darjeeling Limited

The-Darjeeling-LimitedAs the brothers Whitman run toward the train, the slow motion photography kicks in, as do the Kinks, and the crescendo of obvious dialogue, “This baggage isn’t going to make it,” is uttered, you may find yourself exhausted.  Indeed, when I first saw the film at a press screening half a decade ago, one of the more obnoxious reviewers in the crowd decided it was quite appropriate to sigh throughout the entire film.  Wes Anderson has this effect on people, and his last live action film, The Darjeeling Limited is no different.  And there are many reasons for this—the style, the repeated themes, the disconnect from the upper middle class world of his characters, even the perfectly crafted soundtracks.  All these aspects of his films are both cool and distancing, deep and superficial, dramatic and flat.  This is especially true with The Darjeeling Limited because, as Matt Zoller-Seitz remarks in his visual essay on the bluray, it is a distillation of many of Anderson’s themes, both a representation and watermark.  This makes the film either entrancing for someone who has never seen an Anderson film or possibly disappointing as his fifth effort.  Repeated viewing helps, and now we have that chance, courtesy of a new bluray from the Criterion Collection.

The film itself follows a spiritual rouse, perpetuated by the eldest brother of his younger siblings.  Presented as a spiritual journey, complete with deadlines, plans and itineraries designed to hit the hot spots of Indian temples and the like, it is really a journey for the brothers to reconnect with their mother.  The falsities of the planned spiritual journey are not unlike the superficial presentations of emotions that Anderson’s characters emote.  It is rare to see a character in one of his films that processes their pain in a totally healthy way.  But they do work at it, and these processes of loss and redemption are the stuff of Darjeeling Limited.

Included on the bluray are some great additions to the previous dvd release.  A commentary with the writers and director, an essay following the thematic development of the film, behind the scenes footage from Roman Coppola’s video diary of the writing of the screenplay, and others.  There are even some extended and deleted scenes (my favorite of which is of the brothers playing cricket with a local group of children).

This film gets better with each viewing.  When I first saw it, I nearly took offence at the inclusion of the venomous snake, a nod to Renoir’s, The River, which becomes only a punch line in Anderson’s film.  Now, I understand it as yet another attempt by the Whitman brothers to tempt death, as they do not understand themselves the power of the emotions with which they deal.  Their journey is just the beginning.

Wes Anderson plays with fire.  I came to this same conclusion years ago and remain on the fence today.  The film does an excellent job at building its momentum, finally finding release in the wetted eyes of a woman who has also removed herself from the pain, withdrawn from the scorching flames of the fire.  The characters, and Anderson, ply with this fire, showing us the after effects, whether they are the bandaged faces, the collected trinkets from the past, or the short stories written as a rehearsal of the pain.  Yet these characters are never engulfed.  There is another train awaiting them, where their old patterns can resume; plans, sweet lime, father’s glasses.  I guess I have some more healing to do, indeed.  But perhaps that is too harsh, and there is plenty to be seen and enjoyed in the film.  Perhaps the revelation that the scars won’t heal is revelation enough.

-Rob Ribera

DVD Review: The Thin Red Line

thin red lineWhat is this war in the heart of nature? This is the question—left unanswered—at the heart of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, The Thin Red Line.  And we are all the better for it.  This nearly three hour poem of cinema lingers, asks us questions about life and death, light and shadow, horror and sacrifice, presenting us with only the assurance that e are all alone in this world, yet forever linked to one another.  Much to chew on for certain, and given a heightened sense of meaning in the face of war, yet the artistry of cinematographer John Toll and the direction of Malick never lets us down.  It only presents the questions.

The film examines the battle for Guadalcanal during World War II.  I say examines because it is not a traditional war film in any sense.  Though it includes many of the staples of Hollywood war films, it transforms them into something different altogether.  Moments of death come as blindly as they do in real war.  Moments of heroism do so as well, but without the punctuation of the word.  At one point, Sean Penn’s character lashes out at the mere suggestion that he is anything other than a soldier doing his job.  Combined with the usual war film elements is Malick’s sensibility, one that adds elegiac shots of vines, dense forest, crocodiles, dying birds, and beautiful vistas.  The natural is just as chaotic, the film suggests, and the wars between men are just an extension of that violence.

Although any supplemental material would have been welcome for this release, particularly in light of the massive amount of cutting that pared a six hour film to less than three and the usual refusal of Malick to add any commentary other than the film, there is plenty to be happy about here.   I was a bit surprised that not much of the cut footage is presented, but what is revealed is rather good.  My favorite is a scene with Mickey Rourke, his giant, soil stained hands cradling his head, his frayed words the evidence of a hard battle seen.  If only this were in the film, his renaissance may have come a little sooner.

One of the true highlights of the extra features is Hans Zimmer’s interview.  Taking us into the preparation of his six hours worth of music, the composer helps to  paint a picture of Malick as an artist, explaining how they spoke of tones and colors as much as they did images.  He even reveals that Malick basically moved into the studio for a time while Zimmer worked on the film.  John Toll’s commentary with the production designer and producer is also a wonderful addition.  If Malick won’t reveal any secrets, we can at least glean some information from these men, who talk about he production schedule, assembling the large cast, working with an “anthropological unit” to capture the Melanesian tribe, and the poetic vision of the director.

However, the film truly speaks for itself.  The masterful cinematography of Toll is impossible to beat.  The sweeping moves over the grassy hills of Guadalcanal combined with the subtle work of all the actors makes for a film that is as grand as it is insular, as bold as it is poetic.

The questions posed by the soldiers, generals, Ives, and Malick do not—and cannot—have answers.  The wars between nature and between men, between ourselves—they are ongoing in various manifestations.  The poetic horror of the crocodile in the first moments gives way to a single blade of life shooting out from the ground.  The struggle will continue.  In Malick’s vision, there is no victorious battle, no overt celebration of an army bested, at least not in any lingering sense.  Instead, there is weariness and loss.  Hero is just a word, victory a sham.  We know that the cycle will continue.  I can watch this film unfold every day a symphony of John Toll’s images, Hans Zimmer’s orchestrations and Terrence Malick’s poetry.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

coco-chanel-igor-stravinskyFrom the opening sequence of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, it is clear that the film’s focus is style. An elaborate weave of colors and textures create a kaleidoscope that slowly morphs into the action of the film. Well dressed Parisians float through beautiful spaces in a glamorous Opera Hall waiting for the 1913 presentation of Stravinsky’s music. The tension builds as the camera follows dancers, musicians, choreographers and composers who frantically try to keep the angry audience at bay. Throughout this chaotic scene, Coco Chanel (played by Anna Mouglalis) remains calm and poised, her expression flinching only when she meets the firm and volatile Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen).

The film examines the relationship that develops between the two artists as the both work to create their respective masterpieces. It starts with their meeting in 1913 and continues through the twenties. The previews emphasize the intensity of their encounters, but this passion is slow to build, coming through glances and pauses. When the two characters finally recognize their connection, it seems somehow sudden and long overdue. Like the rest of the movie, the sex shown beautifully, even when the motivations and consequences are less than commendable. This duality is acheived because the characters both display a detachment from the rest of the world. Chanel’s face is constantly piercing, her eyes in slight squint that demands something from the people she chooses to engage. It works for parts of the film, making her later tears all the more surprising, but doesn’t go so far as to carry the entire film. Neither Stravinsky nor Chanel is portrayed kindly.

The movie features a fashion designer and never lets you forget it. The clothes are crisp, characterizing each of the actors. The colors are given then taken away. The majority of the interactions take place in Chanel’s home allowing the design to be so precise and evolving, it’s almost overwhelming. The camerawork also changes over the course of the film. At first, steady moves dominate. Dramatic and controlled crane shots circle the angry mob in the Paris Opera house. Slow push in on the characters who seem detached from the action around them. As the two characters begin to fall apart, the camerawork becomes more erratic, favoring jerky handheld shots and faster cuts between them. It is clear that the filmmaker has a great appreciation for the music, and lets it paint the emotion in sweeping passionate strokes.

The climax of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky seems anti-climactic. The most important things have already happened when the film is telling you to be most excited. The ending, like the sex, seems sudden, but also overdue. The movie is on the longer side, and has an air of finality about it without feeling complete.

-Kenice Mobley

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky directed by Jan Kounen and staring Mads Mikkelson, Anna Mouglas, and Yelena Morozova opens in theaters nationwide Friday, June 25.

White Material

white_material_xlgOne of the few things even resembling a consensus that you will find among film fans is that Claire Denis is the best working female director. Whether she is the greatest female filmmaker of all time or the finest working director period are both up for debate (for the record, I’d say she’s pretty high up there in both categories). This consensus comes from a remarkable mixture of genre-bending narrative experiments, her ability to create profound beauty out of the smallest detail and intensely personal stories told in very personal ways. One of her recurring personal stories is that of the colonial experience in Africa. She was born in France, but spent her entire childhood moving around French colonial Africa with her family. Her first film, 1988’s Chocolate, was an autobiographical study of her own childhood experiences during the end of colonialism. She’s returned to the continent every few years during her career, with 1999’s masterful Beau Travail using Melville’s novella Billy Budd as a basis for a study of masculinity and the role of the post-colonial force. White Material is different. In those films, the relationship between the natives and the colonial/post-colonial forces was strained but reasonably peaceful. Now, nearly fifty years since the end of colonialism, it is time for the entitled to leave a place that they do not understand. Most of the white characters in the film claim to be African, and some go so far as to insult other French citizens, but they are not a part of the land. In her other films, the characters are a part of their environment—in Friday Night the young couple is as much a piece of the film’s central traffic jam as any of the cars and in Beau Travail the soldiers are as much a part of the desert as any natives—but in White Material the characters do not belong, despite their beliefs to the contrary, and this conflict is what carries the film.

Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert in a magnificent performance) co-owns a coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation with her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert). His father formerly owned the place and still lives there, floating around as a symbol of a colonial past. Their idle adult son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) sits in his bed all day and rarely helps with the harvest while Andre’s second wife and son judge his laziness. The story is told in jumbled flashbacks (although it is still a very straightforward story, especially when compared to her L’Intrus), but it begins with soldiers from the army hunting down a rebel leader called “The Boxer” (Isaach De Bankole), who crawls to the plantation with a wound he knows will be mortal in order to die in peace and avoid the mass of child soldiers who try to follow him. As the conflict between the rebels and the army escalates, anyone with money is told to leave the country, but Maria does not listen. Her latest harvest is nearly complete and she does not believe that the fighting is close. Eventually, this disbelief devolves into a full psychosis as she ignores all evidence of the conflict because her sense of entitlement to the land will not allow her to leave, even as Manuel snaps after being attacked by two child soldiers and decides to join the rebels. Maria tries to rationalize her decision by forcing herself to believe that she is as much of an African as the common people who she hires to finish the harvest. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have easily become an action film about one woman trying to defend her way of life, but Denis’s films have always avoided an easily applicable genre. Friday Night could have been a simple love story and Beau Travail could have been a war movie, but in her able hand they could transcend the silly bonds of genre and become far more profound studies of humanity, which is exactly what happens in White Material.

For me, the most interesting story is Manuel’s. Denis uses him as a metaphor for two seemingly incompatible things. On the surface, he is the white man in Africa personified. At one point he goes so far as to cut off his blonde hair and shove it down the throat of a black friend. He is lazy and violent and he does not have anything even resembling an understanding of what it is to be poor and under the control of Europeans. He gives the rebels guns and food and medicine, but forces the young soldiers to use them incorrectly, to solve his problems. Conversely, his story also seems to model the western view of black Africa. For the first half of the film, he is constantly mentioned but never actually seen. The characters refer to him as a lazy child, but he is an adult with the potential to do more, but with no opportunity. When he finally leaves the house, his mother ignores his absence at first and then cries, but does not act, when it becomes clear how broken he has become. This seems to echo the relationship between the colonial powers and Africa very well, and is the closest thing to a real political statement that you will find in a Claire Denis film. She places most of the blame for Manuel’s action on his mother, and thus blames Europe for the demise of Africa.

This is the first film Denis has made without her longtime cinematographer Agnes Godard since 1990’s No Fear, No Sleep, and while replacement Yves Cape does an excellent job in his own right, White Material isn’t quite as gorgeous as Denis’ last few films. There is no moment with the aching beauty of the dance sequence in 35 Shots Of Rum, which topped more than a few lists of the best moments in film from last year. Denis’s signature has always been to frame the scene in a carefully composed long shot with few cuts before a quick close-up of a part of a character’s body, like a cheek or a hand, and there isn’t as much of that second part here, but the long shots are just as beautiful as ever. Unlike Hollywood message movies set on the continent, there is a great degree of reality in White Material. Her films are all about sensation, and she does a beautiful job of capturing the sensation of her Africa. The score, which moves between ambient post-rock and more traditional African music captures the mood of an outsider trying to get in, but most of the sensation is captured visually. Both the beauty of the land and the brutality of the situation are allowed enough screen time to make her point. There is a way for the wealthy to help, but they must stop old patterns of behavior. The most sensible person in the films seems to be The Boxer, who just wants to die in peace, but that peace brings hell onto every other character, and Denis know that the same result will come if Africa allows itself to die. It is difficult to imagine human beings living in the conditions shown in the film, but Denis wants to remind us of that part of the world, and she wants to show us that we must offer unconditional help, not control.

-Adam Burnstine

White Material is unrated, but it does feature violence and nudity.

It will play at the Boston museum of fine arts on Saturday July 17th at 8:20 as a part of the Boston French Film Festival.

Directed by Claire Denis; written by Claire Denis and Marie N’Diaye; director of photography, Yves Cape; edited by Guy Lecorne; original music by Stuart Staples; production designer, Abiassi Sainte-Pere; produced by Pascal Carcheteux, distributed by IFC. Running time 1 hour 46 minutes.