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K. Gordon
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Ken Burns: The Central Park Five [Blu-ray]
Ken Burns: The Central Park Five [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Antron McCray
Price: CDN$ 19.99
2 used & new from CDN$ 18.50

5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful, if quiet, condemnation of society's rage, May 27 2014
Any story of justice denied, of people wrongfully imprisoned is inherently dramatic. But Ken Burns uses this case of five frightened teenaged boys prodded and manipulated into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit to dig into some larger societal issues as well. Yes, the police and prosecutors look bad for the way they mislead the kids into confessions, and then steadfastly refuse to look at other evidence. But the press also comes off badly for exploiting the case to sell papers and satisfy a frightened city’s desire for law and order, instead of asking questions when it became clear things simply weren’t adding up. And politicians for expressing condemnation and outrage at these young men before they were even (wrongly) convicted. A strong and pointed warning about those times when society’s desire for revenge overcomes it’s sense of logic, humanity and fairness.

Devdas [Import]
Devdas [Import]
DVD ~ Shah Rukh Khan
Offered by Sellavie Online Traders
Price: CDN$ 32.90
5 used & new from CDN$ 32.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Colorful and touching, if a bit uneven, May 17 2014
This review is from: Devdas [Import] (DVD)
Note: As a North American who quite likes, but is not an expert on Indian cinema, I'm the first to admit there may be elements of content or style that I might lack the knowledge to fully appreciate. These are just my personal reactions, take them for what they're worth.

Colorful and touching, if occasionally uneven, this story of a Romeo and Juliet like love affair and it’s aftermath certainly has it’s moments. The performances are strong, it looks great, there’s some interesting social commentary about the corrosive effects of class and social status. and there are a few good musical numbers.

But the musical element is odd – too much or two little for my taste. One song an hour is just enough to make their sudden appearance a bit jarring, not fully integrated into the style. There’s also a tendency to melodrama and overstatement in the plot and even the (quite good) acting, and some important questions about the "whys" behind characters’ key decisions in this tale of love and loss are left unexplored.

I was also frustrated that the DVD transfer quality didn't seem up to the physical beauty of the film. It's not bad, but this is the kind of film that calls out for blu-ray, or at least an absolutely 1st rate mastering.

None-the-less, it works well enough to enjoy as spectacle, and heart stuck melodrama to be enjoyable, almost like an old style Hollywood film, if not up to the level of Bhanasali’s later, quite brilliant and innovative “Black”.

La Notte
La Notte
DVD ~ Jeanne Moreau
Offered by thebookcommunity_ca
Price: CDN$ 55.65
10 used & new from CDN$ 20.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Difficult, dense, and fascinating, May 1 2014
This review is from: La Notte (DVD)
Challenging and emotionally muted on 1st viewing, I still found this largely a very interesting portrait of a bourgeois marriage crumbling, observed during one afternoon and night.

The couple visit a seemingly dying friend in the hospital, attend a book signing for the husband’s new novel, stop at a nightclub where they barely even react to an erotic floor show, and then head to a party for a rich industrialist who is celebrating the first win by his new racehorse, Both Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau do terrific work as the deadened and estranged couple. He no longer even identifies with his own writing, feeling it’s just a product, like that made by the industrialist. He’s even lost his sense of lust. She no longer feels love for him, and seems locked in loneliness and depression. It’s a tough movie to take, grim, humorless, almost as dead feeling as its leads, but that would seem to be the point.

My only problem, as I’ve occasionally had with Antonioni, is that well before the end I felt I had gotten these themes clearly and powerfully, and there was, after that, a certain sense of hammering home ideas that had already been expressed beautifully with a lighter touch (there’s a key reveal near the end that I saw coming a mile off). But the images (of course) are striking and memorable, as are the performances, and the sad gloom that hovers over this world of people who seem to have it all, and yet feel so little.

Maqbool
Maqbool
DVD ~ Irfan Khan

5.0 out of 5 stars Inventive and intelligent re-imagining of "Macbeth", April 26 2014
This review is from: Maqbool (DVD)
Intelligent and inventive updating of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" to the culture of the modern Indian underworld in Mumbai. Director Vishal Bhardwaj and screenwriter Abbas Tryewala walk the tightrope between fidelity to the original and inventiveness rarely making a misstep. Indeed, you don't have to have any knowledge of "Macbeth" to appreciate "Maqbool" as a well above average gangland film, filled with interesting characters, and tons of politics, violence, alliances and deals made and broken.

The acting is generally excellent. Pankaj Kapur practically steals the film with his performance as Maqbool's boss, a savvy mob leader who has kept power not only through fear, but through inspiring loyalty and even love from not only those around him, but from 'the people' as well, by standing up for India's many minorities, who in turn elect officials inclined to look the other way at mob activities

The film is an interesting mix of old and new for Bollywood. The style and tone is naturalistic, the performances unforced. There are echoes of "The Godfather". And while there are songs, there are only a few, and generally within a context where someone bursting into song actually makes sense – a wedding celebration for instance.

The film does wind down a bit towards the end, but so does (for me) Shakespeare's play – the most interesting thing being Macbeth's (or Maqbool's) seduction by and rise to power, more than the seemingly inevitable consequences.

This is well worth seeing for anyone interested in Shakespeare, or Indian cinema, or just a good tale of power struggles whether in the mob or in society at large.

One frustrating note. The image quality on the blu-ray I bought from Amazon.uk is far from what the film deserves, looking more VHS than HD at times.

Suzanne Farrell:Elusive Muse
Suzanne Farrell:Elusive Muse
DVD ~ George Balanchine
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 776.35
5 used & new from CDN$ 381.65

5.0 out of 5 stars Intimate and fascinating biographic documentary, April 25 2014
This review is from: Suzanne Farrell:Elusive Muse (DVD)
Intimate and fascinating biographic documentary on the great ballet star of the 1960s and 70s. A lot of the film is Ms. Farrell herself, admirably openly -- and sometimes emotionally -- relating the her complex story, which included an obsessive, almost scary, but apparently sexless affair with her choreographer and boss, the great George Balanchine (over 40 years her senior), as well as her complex relationships with her mother and a couple of key dancing partners.

But the film is much more than the story of a ballerina's love and home life, it's also about all the growth and change she went through as an artist and human being as the years unfolded. Included are many all too brief clips of Ms. Farrell dancing.

Even someone like me, who knows next to nothing about ballet, can't help but be stunned by her beautiful, flowing, sensual movements. A strikingly strong, and unique documentary about a unique woman.

Black [Import]
Black [Import]
DVD ~ Amitabh Bachchan
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 62.82
6 used & new from CDN$ 29.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Very moving and beautiful, April 24 2014
This review is from: Black [Import] (DVD)
Extremely moving film, based loosely on the Helen Keller story, transplanted to India.

Stylistically, this is very much a Bollywood film. No songs , but ‘larger than life’ performances – which are still enthralling and rooted in real emotions. An operatic feel – that doesn’t undermine the story’s power. Exquisite, but highly expressionistic and stylized photography. In other words, it’s the correlative opposite of Arthur Penn’s gritty, ‘real’ “The Miracle Worker’, but it succeeds just as powerfully on it’s own terms.

Bollywood sometimes manages make movies the way that Hollywood did in the 1930s-1950s; they aren’t afraid of theatricality, but they use that quality just right, so it enhances instead of undermining the storytelling. The film may have been consciously pushing my buttons, but it all worked, making me weep more than once. And a number of images have haunted me since seeing it.

Herman's House [Import]
Herman's House [Import]
Price: CDN$ 27.74
19 used & new from CDN$ 15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but ultimately a little frustrating, April 23 2014
This review is from: Herman's House [Import] (DVD)
A documentary I found fascinating but ultimately a little frustrating. The basic story is powerful. Herman Wallace spent close to 40 years in solitary confinement in a U.S. for a murder he possibly did not commit. There are (frustratingly unexplored) hints that the sentence may have political motivations. Wallace is befriended by artist Jackie Sumell, who decides to help free Wallace’s mind, if she can’t free him physically from bondage. So she asks him to imagine what kind of house he’d want if he were set free, and sets out to create it, first as a model for a gallery installation, and later to try and actually build the house full scale, as a place for at-risk youths. So, with such a great story I was prepared (perhaps over-prepared) to be pulled in and emotionally effected.

And as an outcry against the cruelty of solitary confinement in a 6 by 9 foot cell, 23 hours a day year after year it is indeed effecting. But the film’s focus is less on Wallace and the U.S. prison system then it is about Sumell’s journey as an artist. And while she is an interesting woman, her story just can’t compete with the compelling nature of Wallace’s.

There’s also something vaguely off-base feeling about Sumell, that feels unexplored. The why’s and wherefores of her obsession with Wallace and her quixotic quest to create his house are presented, but not very deeply investigated. There are moments when she comes off as a deeply committed figure, at others there are hints she may be – in a way – exploiting Wallace for her own career, and at others that her efforts are misguided - that the same effort could be spent helping to free this man, instead of on an art project. But these potentially rich issues are never mined.

The film is certainly worth seeing, and it raises important questions. But where the film puts it’s focus, and how deep it goes left me wishing for something more – at least on first viewing.

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life / Le premier jour du reste de ta vie
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life / Le premier jour du reste de ta vie
DVD ~ Rémi Bezançon
Price: CDN$ 12.99
9 used & new from CDN$ 6.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Sweet, human, funny and touching, April 23 2014
Sweet, human, funny and touching, this portrait of 5 key moments in a families life may not dive as deep as some films into the complexity of 'family', but makes up for it by reminding us that families – for all their flaws and pettiness and hurts – are also wonderful and important and, if we're lucky, full of love.

Remi Bezancon manages to make this argument without falling into too much sappiness. The acting is generally excellent, and the film has a knack for catching all those small details in our lives that eventually add up to larger, more important ones.

Not a masterpiece, but a lovely and very heartfelt and enjoyable film.

Before Your Eyes
Before Your Eyes
Price: CDN$ 15.38
16 used & new from CDN$ 7.95

4.0 out of 5 stars I wish I could have loved it more..., April 19 2014
This review is from: Before Your Eyes (DVD)
An admirable film, both in intent and execution, but one which somehow never had the devastating impact it's tragic story would seem to deserve.

Part of a long line of films showing the incredible hardships kids who are orphaned and left to the streets face (e.g. 'Pixote') in this case there is a powerful political facet as well. A middle- class Kurdish journalist and his wife are gunned down in front of their young children (a boy, a girl and an infant) by Turkish paramilitary troops seemingly bent on silencing political opposition. The children are left to fend for themselves, ending up out on the street before long. They are ignored by most before finally settling in with some other street kids, and a prostitute who treats the young girl with kindness. This leads to a plot twist I won't give away here, but one with considerable punch.

So why wasn't I more blown away by this well-meaning film? I think it's because I felt a sense of slickness and manipulation. The film is shot with a certain reserve. Instead of hand-held camera, or a feeling of verite, there's a distance in the pretty, but almost Hollywood like cinematography. Unlike 'Pixote' or DeSica's best work, I could feel the strings being pulled, and so found my heart resisting. Also, while the 10 year old Senay Orak is truly amazing as the sister, much of the other acting in the film feels stiff and unnatural. I was always aware I was watching a movie, not real life.

I feel awful not loving the film more. It's heart is surely in the right place in bringing a tragic social and political situation to light. I wish it could have moved me to the tears it seemed trying so hard – too hard – to do. None-the-less, it's good enough that I would urge people to see it and judge for themselves.

Influencia (La)
Influencia (La)
Offered by Prestivo3
Price: CDN$ 37.89
6 used & new from CDN$ 37.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, simple, moving, April 19 2014
This review is from: Influencia (La) (DVD)
A deeply moving and disturbing film about a young mother’s decent into ever deeper depression and delusion, increasing leaving her two young children to fend for themselves and to try to make some sense out of what is happening to their mother. Paloma Morales is powerfully effective as the tortured mother, seeming dangerous at moments, heartbreakingly lost at others, and with a hope of normalcy now and again. With the film’s simple, spare, astringent style, as critics have noted there are echoes of Bresson and the Chantal Akerman of ‘Jeanne Dielman…’, but this felt less self-conscious, more anchored in sad reality.

Frustratingly, for us non-French speakers, I've never been able to find a DVD with English subs.

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