Saturday, March 31, 2012

White Elephant Blogathon: Dev D

This was my face after the movie finished
Read about the White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Paul Clark at Silly Hats Only.

            In general, I prefer to know as little as possible before seeing a film. Had I looked up Dev D, my “present” for this year's White Elephant blog, I would have known that it’s a modern adaptation of Devdas, a classic Bengali novel from the early 20th century. I would have known it was a box office success in its country and hugely popular. It was a critical success as well, and won a number of FilmFare Awards, one of the oldest and most prestigious film ceremony for Hindi language films. Most importantly, I would have known that this laughably and horid film was “serious.”

            Dev D follows a na├»ve 20-somethings boy named Dev (Abhay Deol) from a wealthy family who is a clearly an idiot, unworthy of our sympathies (which we are asked to do so for over two hours). He thinks he is in love with Paro (Mahi Gill), a childhood friend. Dev was sent off to the UK after causing his father much pain, by not calling him “father” (a detail I’m assuming from the original novel, because to be sent halfway around the country for such impudence is quite the punishment). But he never forgot about Paro, and through the beauty of the Internet, they stay in touch. Plus, Dev is such a good guy that Paro sends him naked pictures (what a gentleman so full of love). So when he returns to Dehli, the two only have one thing on their mind, as one shot of roosters suggests, though the two can never find alone tine.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games: A Fan Vs. Non-Fan Chat

The Hunger Games is a dystopian story about a yearly contest where children are forced to murder each other for the entertainment of others, which is not your typical Hollywood affair. Adapted from the hit novel by Suzanne Collins (the first of three), the film is directed by Gary Ross and stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a girl who volunteers to participate in order to save her sister from the brutal tradition. Since I approached the material cold, I thought I’d invite my close friend Mira John on to discuss it with me. Mira isn’t a film critic, but knows her stuff when it comes to these types of film adaptations. She loves the books for The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and now The Hunger Games. Since she was well versed in the universe of the novels, I did a chat with her after to get a sense of how those who love the books are viewing the next big Hollywood franchise. Please note that we discuss spoilers for both the film and the novel. This talk is intended for those who have seen the film or don't care to have the ending ruined.

Peter: Hey Mira. So we saw The Hunger Games today, adding our $20 to the $155 million it made this weekend, making it the highest grossing non-sequel opening of all time. Now I've never read the novel by Suzanne Collins, while you've read all three. So my first question is how did you enjoy the movie?

Mira: I enjoyed it, though I haven’t decided if it was worth all the hype. But it was fun. I'll probably watch the next movies whenever they come out.

Peter: Yes, I feel we both walked out satisfied but a bit ambivalent

Mira: Yes, but probably for different reasons.

Peter: Now here's a question that's been bothering me: are the books as serious as the film made it seem?

Mira: I would say that the books are more serious.

Peter: I'm thinking about when we first get to the Capital, which is this certainly epic moment, but never really awe in the same sense you get with say, the Harry Potter series. I guess for me the Capital is supposed to be this wondrous place, and I was kind of dumbstruck by the visual style. I'm still trying to figure out a world in which that type of fashion would be considered beautiful, and the buildings itself seem like a mishmash of typical dystopian films from the last decade.

Mira: I think that's the idea—in The Hunger Games universe, the 12 outlying districts are slums or backwater areas, whereas the Capital is supposed to be this highly modernized, opulent, and decadent city. Since this story supposedly takes place in the future after some unknown disaster wipes out North America/ the US/ the world as we know it, it makes sense that the filmmakers would try to give off a dystopia vibe.

Peter: Right. Though the radiation has had some serious effects on Wes Bently's moustache.

The Raid: The Way of the Gun-Fist Combo

The Raid: Redemption
Written and Directed By: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim
Director of Photography: Matt Flannery, Editor: Gareth Evans, Original Music: Aria Prayogi, Joseph Trapanese, and Fajar Yuskemal

Correction: The review of this film accidentally misidentified the director of the film. It is Gareth Evans, not Gareth Edwards.

            “Why are we attacking today?” A soldier asks his captain before their raid of an apartment complex. Another soldier, before the captain can answer, chides such a question. “You do what you’re told!” he exclaims. And what better way explains The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian action flick that combines cops and robbers with extreme kung fu. The Raid (the Redemption was added by distributor Sony Classic Pictures for confounding reasons) has been heavily buzzed and critically lauded since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and thus expectations have probably risen to incalculable amounts for a film that is simply a balls-to-the-walls action flick. And perhaps because of those expectations, I found the flick to be dull and monotonous, occasionally inspired by its kung-fu intensity, but not once engaging.

            If anything, The Raid should launch the career of writer-director Gareth Evans, who has a tale of classic good guys versus bad guys. The film begins with Rama (Iko Uwais), a soldier whose taskforce must infiltrate the apartment complex of a high level crime lord. The apartment is seething with criminals, all armed with machetes, machine guns, and the likes. And of course, it turns out that the raid itself has not been commissioned on any official channels; these boys are on their own, and soon find themselves outnumbered and outmatched.

Screening Log: Long Live Liverpool Edition

Nothing of particular note before this week’s screening log that I won’t get into below, which has basically been my first taste at Terrence Davies and has been truly delightful. Amusing interlude: before my screening of The Raid: Redemption today, I noticed a man talking on the phone who had just come out of the film. “It was the worst film I’ve ever seen,” he exclaimed to his wife. “It wasn’t in English!” He gave no other comment on why he hated the film. So that’s still a thing.

-Colonel Redl, 1985. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Screening via DVD.
-Of Time and the City, 2009. Directed by Terrence Davies. 35mm Screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Distant Voices, Still Lives, 1988. Directed by Terrence Davies. 35mm Screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-The House of Mirth, 2000. Directed by Terrence Davies. 35mm Screening at Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Screening Log: All Russian All The Time Edition

          No real notes of interest before this week’s screening log, but I’m very glad I sort of on a whim decided to attend Film Society’s Aleksei Guerman retrospective, whose films are completely unavailable on DVD (even though My Friend Ivan Lapshin was a dud after the first half hour and never really improved). Also of note, I was able to see Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on 35mm at Film Society, and it is shocking how even not a particularly nice print can be better than any DVD (as in comparison to the embarrassing DVD of Stalker I saw last week). But before this becomes my latest rant against digital projection, let’s get to the films:

-Nostalghia, 1983. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Trial on the Road, 1971. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.

             It’s really interesting to write about Guerman’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, a whirlwind trip through all 9 layers of hell during the end of Stalin in the USSR, because it’s the type of film in which I’m not sure its viewers should have all the context or none whatsoever. What I mean is Khrustalyov, My Car! doesn’t particularly play perfectly for those who aren’t extremely familiar with the history of Russian culture. However, not knowing any of these details still made the film a vivid and inspiring masterpiece in my eyes, perhaps the best film I’ve seen in at least a month (and I’ve seen some real classics).

21 Jump Street: Remedial Police Lessons

21 Jump Street
Directed By: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Written By: Michael Bacall, working from a story by Bacall and Jonah Hill
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, and Nick Offerman.
Director of Photography: Barry Peterson, Editor: Joel Negron, Production Designer: Peter Wenham, Original Music: Mark Mothersbaugh

            Why exactly is Channing Tatum so great in the new comedy 21 Jump Street? The young star has been criticized by many for simply being a piece of man candy, whether in actions roles like G.I. Joe or romances like The Vow (those who know him from smaller works like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints are aware of his supreme talent). Tatum’s best ability as an actor is that he can play dead serious, which might suggest he has little range, but works perfectly in a comedy like this where he must deliver absurd lines without a hint of irony. Tatum’s hot bod and true conviction, despite the absurdity of the situations the film places him in, help make 21 Jump Street a hell of a fun time.

            The film is of course a retooling of the little known television series from the 1980s with Johnny Depp, about an undercover cop who infiltrates a high school. Most of the film’s audience, including myself, have never seen the series (a fact one of the characters acknowledges in one of the film’s most humorous jokes). Thus, screenwriter Michael Bacall, who co-wrote the story with star Jonah Hill, retooled it as a buddy comedy and action parody, a genre that may have lots its edge, but works perfectly here. And while 21 Jump Street could hardly say to break ground at all, it certainly is a fun ride while it lasts.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Kid With A Bike: A Coming-Of-Bresson Tale

The Kid With A Bike
Written and Directed By: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Thomas Doret, Cecile de France, Jeremie Renier, and Ego Di Mateo
Director of Photography: Alain Marcoen, Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo, Set Designer: Igor Gabriel

            The first thing I noticed in The Kid With A Bike was how far back the camera was. We’re quickly introduced to 10-year-old Cyril, desperately searching for his father. A phone call results in a disconnected number. He escapes the foster home, running on foot, and taking a bus to his father’s old apartment, dodging the guardians after him. But unlike the extremely memorable opening of a film like Rosetta, the Dardenne brothers hold the camera further back and less kinetic than usual. We aren’t given immediate connection with Cyril in this matter, partially because his conflict is only immediate to him, but more importantly because we have to learn to love Cyril as the film’s other protagonist, Samantha, must. And learning to give into such grace and accept with love is many ways the message suggested in The Kid With A Bike.

            For those who don't know the Dardenne brothers, their first narrative film Le Promesse premiered at Cannes in 1996, and since then they’ve (deservingly) won a prize for each of their subsequent films. However, some have outrageously claimed their similar aesthetic has become tiring and cumbersome. “Look, another film about suffering in Belgium!” their critics antagonize at them, as if other auteurs have broken so far from  their own comfort zone. But to reduce the Dardennes is to reduce the way they have slowly evolved their style, especially from something more unyielding at L’Enfant. Lorna’s Silence took the form of a gangster thriller thrown through the prism of their unflinching eyes. The Kid With A Bike takes the form of a fairy tale in many ways, except there’s nothing of particular miracles on the way, simply moments in which we experience true human empathy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Screening Log: Ima Let You Finish Tarkovsky Edition

                This week’s screening log is not only late, but also shorter than ever. It’s been one of those weeks. I was all set to write it yesterday and then I couldn’t get into the headspace cause of some non-film things. I’m not really in the headspace now, but perhaps I can take that as a challenge. Of note, the three repertory films (and two current films) marks the first week in which everything was screening in digital. This is sad. If you haven’t, read my piece on the troubling aspects of the North By Northwest DCP.

-2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968: Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Digital 2K Projection at Film Forum.
-North By Northwest, 1959. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Digital 2K Projection at the Museum of the Moving Image.
-Stalker, 1979. Directed By Andrei Tarkovsky. Projected DVD at the New School.

                This was the third time I had seen Stalker, which was part of an event called Tarkovsky Interrupts, in which the film was intermittently paused for discussion by a series of six panelists, organized around Geoff Dyer, who just wrote a book on the film called Zona. I won’t give a full overview—someone more astute than me already did that much better than I can—but here are a few of the notes I took and my own thoughts on this film, which remains my favorite Tarkovsky. I was actually expecting them to stop the movie a couple more times or at least speak longer, but the screening went over length anyways (four hours were allotted).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Imperfections in a "Perfect" Transfer: Digital Cinema Complaints Part Two

Last week, I wrote about the coming age of “Digital Cinema Projection,” and the issues that still had to be worked out if we were to accept it as the replacement for 35mm. I noted that Dr. Strangelove, which showed at Film Forum, had chosen an odd technique of displaying film grain throughout, an often distracting but eventually adjustable choice by the Sony Pictures restoration group. Now I want to report on some of the work Warner Bros. has done.

            Of the six major studios, Warner Bros. has been the worst about allowing 35mm of their prints to be shown. They refuse to send film from their archives if they have a DCP available, and I’m afraid that only those with private collections or other archival access may be able to show 35mm for many of their greatest works.

            This week, I was able to see two different DCPs Warners has worked on, both projected in 2K. The first, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I haven’t seen the film in 35mm before, only on a poor quality DVD that might be over ten years old. Seeing the DCP though was a marvel. Ever color stood out perfectly. The lights aboard the spaceship shined like they had been captured on film. There was no grain to speak of. Part of this, is that 2001 is a film in which every color and composition is literally perfect. It’s a pristine, essentially immaculate film, and the DCP reflected this (though this inspired a few tweets by Richard Brody about films that deserve less than stellar transfers).

            I really, really wish I could say the same things about North By Northwest, the Alfred Hitchcock classic, which I saw as part of the "See it Big!" series at the Museum of the Moving Image. In fact, I can say that about 90% of the DCP looked amazing, better than I’ve ever seen the film. But we need to talk about that last 10%. The problem is that North By Northwest uses a lot of rear projections, which are difficult for restorers to figure out what to do when audiences seeing it in 35mm in 1959 probably would have been aware of the illusion. But whatever Warners did with it, they didn’t do it in every scene. The first problem I noted was in the shot below, as Cary enters the UN Embassy:
You can’t see the issue in the pictures, but what happened was the restorers seemed to try and create the flickering image of film. The result was that the area of the frame where the stairs are on the right appeared to have a mirage effect going on while the rest of the frame didn't. The colors seemed unstable, and I'm not an expert on this, but it did not look right and was frankly embarrassing. This happened in a few shots during the film, such as Grant and Marie Saint’s meeting in the woods, and in one of the finale sequences where one of the bad guys is in the area of Mount Rushmore with the room with a light underneath one of the faces (which appeared to be going haywire).

            There is nothing wrong with flickering, but when it only happens in some selective shots, and not in the entirety of the frame, I found myself distracted and confused what Warners was trying to do with these shots. I don’t own a DVD or Blu-Ray copy of the film, but if anyone can look specifically at the shot posted above and let me know if it has the same problem, that would be great (Update: See Glenn Kenny's comment below, which doesn't have the problem at all, making this issue even more absurd). And if you work at Warners in the restoration archive, please upload the DCP immediately and take a look at, and email me as to what you were trying to do.

John Carter: Same Hero's Journey, Different Planet

John Carter
Directed By: Andrew Stanton
Written By: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston, and the voices of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Chuch
Director of Photography: Dan Mindel, Editor: Eric Zumbrunnen, Production Designer: Nathan Crowley, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG-13 for your standard sci-fi spectacle action.

            Have you heard? John Carter is the latest disaster from Disney! It’s an overbloated sci-fi spectacular full of ridiculous characters who have unpronounceable names! It’s overstuffed with CGI that’s there for the sake of more! It cost over $250 million, and if it fails, we’ll never see the likes of it again! Yay, us!

            If you read anything on John Carter this week, which is a very big and costly science fiction epic from Disney, it probably read something like this. And because what the film looks like on its surface, it is certainly easy to pile on the film for representing everything wrong with mainstream filmmaking. Certainly Disney has a trend of these “franchise booter” films since Pirates of the Caribbean, none of which have spawned sequels (see: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia, and Tron: Legacy), and John Carter is certainly written with bookends in order to demand sequel territory. But to dismiss John Carter so easily is to dismiss the grounds the film’s director, Pixar alum Andrew Stanton, wants his audience to approach the film. You have to take the drama as intensely as its characters do, and once you give into the power of John Carter, it’s a wild ride on the red desert.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Interlude: Bracket-idiocy

"[The Media] have less and less ambition and are demanding less and less of themselves as arbiters of what is actually important, of what our problems are and how we’re addressing them. The Wire was trying to say, at the end, 'Look, if anything in the first four seasons struck a nerve with you, don’t think for a moment that anyone’s going to address themselves to it—least of all the watchdogs of society—because their teeth have been taken out.' They’ve done it to themselves." -David Simon, Interview with Vice, December 2009.

"What if we actually did subject the key players of the Wire-verse to rigorous bracketological inquiry? If we played corner boys against dock workers, murder-polices against hoppers, and craven politicos against enigmatic not-actually-Greek human traffickers, in matchups as arbitrary and occasionally unjust as life and death on the mean streets of West Baltimore, would the king stay the king?" -Alex Pappademas, Grantland post announcing a bracket match featuring characters from The Wire, March 5th, 2012.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Screening Log: Laughing at the Apocalypse Edition

            One note before the screening log; for those of you who don’t follow every word about Russian art house cinema, you may not know that Geoff Dyer has published a book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker called Zona. I look forward to reading it soon, especially after J. Hoberman’s review this week. I am particularly excited that next week the New York Institute for the Humanities will be holding a special 4-hour event on Stalker. The film will be played in its entirety, but stopped every half hour for discussion. The panel not only includes Dyer, but the great film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate (a former professor of mine), and Walter Murch, one of the best film editors in the business (best known for his work with Francis Ford Coppola on he Godfather films and Apocalypse Now). There are some others as well, so it should be a unique and interesting event (despite the Twitter ramblings of Glenn Kenny on the inclusion of Dana Stevens). Onto the show:

-The Iron Curtain, 1948: Directed by William Wellman. 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-The President Vanishes, 1934. Directed by William Wellman. 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Digital 2K Projection at Film Forum.
-Some Like it Hot, 1959. Directed by Billy Wilder. Viewed in HD on Turner Classic Movies.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

But Is This Good? Film Forum’s "This Is DCP"

Not shown in the 4K Restoration, or anywhere for that matter.
            Last night, I had the pleasure of attending Film Forum’s “This is DCP,” their first ever repertory programming of films, all shown in digital. As I spoke about briefly last week in my screening log, digital projection for repertory isn’t just a warning, it’s pretty much here. Film Forum’s goal with this series is clear: prove to those who love 35mm that digital can look better than 35mm. So last night, they carted out Grover Crisp, who runs the restoration program for Sony Pictures to do a side-by-side comparison of their most recent work, Kubirck’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

            Because I’m a man of the people, and Film Forum’s small theater is too small for the number of people who probably would’ve liked to see this, I recorded all of Crisp’s talk, which you can listen to below. Sadly, I can’t provide video, but I think a number of people should find Crisp’s discussion worth debating.

While you can hear the audience gasping a few times at how much better the digital print looks than the 35mm, I had one major quibble myself. This was Sony’s attempt to recreate film grain. It may have been simply the job they did on Dr. Strangelove, but I found this extremely distracting. In any sequence where there was a large flat surface (an envelope, the sky, even some of the faces), I couldn’t help but watch the emulated film grain instead of the actual film. It’s not that 35mm doesn’t have film grain—the new print of Wellman’s The Iron Curtain  I saw earlier in the week certainly did—but it seems that Crisp and Sony went overboard. Watching the first thirty minutes of the film, I found myself distracted. I kept watching the grain instead of the objects, the negative space instead of the positive.

That being said, I believe this is only a minor hiccup in the process of making digital look just as wondrous as 35mm (The small clip from their upcoming Lawrence of Arabia 4K restoration did not have this issue, which makes me think this will only be an issue for black and white films). Although the film was projected in 2K instead of 4K (your standard Blu-Ray player runs in about 1K), the images were certainly clearer and more distinct, and as Crisp talks about, you can now see certain details that wouldn’t be possible in any of the current prints of 35mm.

And yet, I remain skeptic, because this process remains expensive and thus limits access only to film companies like Sony, Warner Bros., and so on. And do you think those companies plan to spend the money for their more obscure works to be restored in 4K? This Village Voice article from earlier this week addresses some of these concerns.

To be continued. If you felt nary about the film grain, or had any thoughts on the DCP series Film Forum is doing, please sound off in the comments.

Film Comment Selects: Giorgos Lanthimos's "Alps"

Directed By: Giorgos Lanthimos
Written By: Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Aris Servetalis, and Johnny Vekris.
Director of Photography: Christos Voudouris, Editor: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Production Designer: Anna Georgiadou

Alps screened at part of Film Society’s Film Comment Selects program. Kino Lorber will release the film theatrically later this year.

            Alps includes one of the least believable fight between a couple I’ve ever seen on film. The man and woman give little emotion to their prescribed, inanely written lines. When she knocks over a lamp, it feels like a direction instead of a moment of true emotion. And when she apologies and they embrace, my initial reaction was to laugh instead of cry. But this is also how Giorgos Lanthimos, the director of the film, wants us to feel. These are the worst actors ever, so why do they do it?

            Lanthimos made a splash in certain circles two years ago with his formalist tale of allegorical power, Dogtooth, a film that I found often went for shocks than more complicated truths. Alps, which has a less bizarre premise than Dogtooth, is also a bit more restrained in its shocks. But by avoiding less graphic material, Lanthimos instead finds more profound material as well. Alps not only challenges our current push toward more apparent virtual living, but examines how it works just like an addiction.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Project X: Film For Your Right To Party

Project X
Directed By: Nima Nourizadeh
Written By: Michael Bacall and Matt Drake
Starring: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Alexis Knapp, Dax Flame, and Kirby Bliss Blanton.
Director of Photography: Ken Seng, Editor: Jeff Groth, Production Designer: Bill Brzeski.
Rated: R for what you expect at a party, and a lot of what you wouldn’t expect.

            The epic party is a classic staple of many great comedies. We can think of Russell screaming “I’m a golden God” in Almost Famous before jumping into the pool. Or the moment Julia Stiles broke out of her shell while dancing to Notorious B.I.G. in 10 Things I Hate About You. Plus, the insanity of “Mtich-a-palooza” in Old School with both an appearance by Snoop Dogg and an old man having a heart attack by the end.

            The last one was directed by Todd Phillips, and it’s no surprise that he served as a producer for Project X, an over-the-top extravaganza about the craziest party in the history of mankind, all shot in a found footage style similar to Cloverfield and the recent Chronicle. Project X is certainly insane, to put it casually. It’s less of a movie—the narrative proper only accounts for maybe 15% of the finished product—than a collection of sequences of T&A without any sort of a trajectory except more.