Blu-ray Review- Astral City: A Spiritual Journey

Film Review


Astral City: A Spiritual Journey tells the story of André Luiz (Renato Prieto), a doctor, as he journeys from life to Umbral, a kind of purgatory, and the afterlife in Nosso Lar, where he ultimately has to adjust to his death and prepare for eventual reincarnation.

With this film being a Brazilian production and my being dual citizen of the United States and Brazil, my interest in this film would be fairly clear. It’s a film I actually saw a small piece of on cable in Brazil but never saw all of. Furthermore, I knew it was a big production but was not aware its being based on the word of Chico Xavier, a world renowned medium/spiritualist.

However, pre-existing knowledge of Xavier’s work or philosophies are unnecessary to follow and appreciate this film. Much of the film is introducing these concepts in a narrative way, and it does communicate in a manner apart from religion so the dogmatic, preaching inclinations of the film are kept to a minimum. As the protagonist does learn the workings of this new plain of existence and see his prior life more clearly the initial conflict is resolved and must be replaced. This does cause some issues with the stakes as the conflicted character needs to be a secondary one from that point forward. Yet it is intriguing and well-produced enough to still be engaging even though it does bloat and drag in its latter half.

Astral City (2006, Strand Releasing)

The cinematography, like many elements of this film, has to communicate quite a few environs and implement numerous techniques to do so. It travels from a gilded past to a dark underworld and a bright heavenly plain with equal aplomb in all, which is a credit to Ueli Steiger.

The effects considering the initial production date of the film are fair. As with any film that has much effects work in it the results are hit-and-miss, but the effect desired is usually very well conveyed.

Departmentally the costume and make-up teams are perhaps the most interesting to see. In a film such as this it is clear to see the interplay of the work done by each to create a cohesive whole.

Another aspect that can often be overlooked in a film that features a copious amount of visual effects is the production design. It can be overlooked entirely. The use of locations, sets and effects mesh very well throughout the whole generating numerous emblematic locations that enrapture the eye.

The certain lack of undulation in the emotional fever chart of this film makes it tough sledding for the actors and the results inconsistent, but there are flashes that make it passable.

While at times it functioned more as an exercise in departmental appreciation, and a source of pride for Brazil ramping up things on the technical, the film does manage to hold interest throughout. While I’m not enamored with the translated title it does make it likely that this film will find the most receptive audience for this film. The film does manage to be somewhat more than a philosophical treatise, but does not transcend its ethereal trappings as sufficiently as it could have.

6/10

Bonus Features

Astral City (2006, Strand Releasing)

The trailer of the film in question is the bare minimum a Blu-ray or DVD can offer as a special feature. It can be even more interesting to view the trailer in hindsight. This way you can more closely examine the link between art and marketing and how the story is conveyed to sell to an audience.

In this film it’s interesting to see how the film was geared toward the American arthouse crowd rather as it is a Brazilian film. It does accurately convey the stakes of the story and the production aspect.

Other Trailers

Astral City (2006, Strand Releasing)

One thing that can be interesting to access later (and not before you sit down to watch the main feature) is the additional trailers. This way you can potentially discover new titles. This disc contains: The Way He Looks and The Amazing Catfish, which I have seen. There are two I am not familiar with Symphony of Summits and Lilting.

Making of

Astral City (2006, Strand Releasing)

The making of is usually one of the meatier bonus features you’ll find. On this disc that is certainly the case it runs 22 minutes, it was likely used as promotion on Brazilian television based on that running time.

If there was a Brazilian film that would have the need for such a featurette this would be it. When it was made it was one of if not the biggest production budgets for a Brazilian film. Super-productions are usually reserved for television in Brazil and it’s interesting to get a glimpse into how this production came together. Yes, some help was brought in from abroad where it was clearly needed (most notably with the Ueli Steiger, Director of Photography and SFX company) but as the interviews go around the horn to all production heads you’ll find most of them are nationals.

While the look at all aspects is a bit cursory it is great to see some of the journey of this story from Chico Xavier’s book to the big screen: from taking disparate locales and elements, to creating the visuals both in principal photography and in post.

As many films are its journey to the screen was long but seemingly worthwhile. This do offers a good look at what it was like on set from Werner Schünemann post-wrap speech to the National philharmonic recording Philip Glass’ brilliant score (another coup for the nation’s cinema this film is responsible for).

Oftentimes when watching a film it can be hard to tell how that film fits into the national landscape of the cinema represented. While there is some salesmanship in this doc it does give you a sense of context to that, which is valuable for the uninitiated.

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DVD Review – Allez, Eddy!

Introduction

This was a film I was initially going to discuss in my Mini-Review Round-Up. However, the review grew such that the ‘mini’ tag didn’t really fit anymore. This is a film that has not seen North American release and has only been out on Region 2 Blu-Ray on DVD. These titles are still viewable in other regions on computers or region-free players. I discuss that here.

I found this film through an importer on Amazon, and as I will describe below it goes above and beyond the seemingly simple call of its synopsis.

Film

Allez, Eddy! (2012, Benelux Film Distributors)

With a film such as Allez, Eddy! there are with its various components, which prescribe certain plot points and confrontations. However, what is unique about the film is the handling of said situations, not necessarily the situations themselves. Also, adding to the distinctive palate of the film is the combination of these situations.

To be a bit more specific, in this film you have: the tradition vs. advancement plot of the family-owned butcher shop versus the new supermarket, which in the setting of this tale is a new concept in an of itself. Then you also have the underdog sports story of a kid who comes out of nowhere to shock his hometown in emulation of his hero. Intermingled with those concepts is a family drama, but lastly you have the tale of an isolated child. The cause of his isolation is a malady that could be the cause for much potty humor, but is for the most part handled deftly and delicately. Already upon combining these things you can see this film is anything but run-of-the-mill.

All those items are tethered to one another so there’s no feeling of the film being disjointed as there is a unity to it all; a common thread. There are other subplots that could be touched upon, but its better that those be discovered in the film. Aside from their connection what makes the handling of these themes and plots unique is that things don’t always turn out as you expect or occur when you expect. The film sets you up believing there will be a clichéd climax or sequence and pulls a reverse on you at the last second.

So on a narrative, and more intellectual, level it is intriguing. However, it also captures you viscerally with the varied and wondrous performances of the cast. They elicited from me all the emotions desired. As viewers we are constantly put in a place of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ a character in a scene. Empathy and understanding throughout a film, even with character you dislike or are mad at, is rare. This film achieves that engagement. Regardless of how characters are designed to affect you, you understand them. And within a film that focuses mainly on a family dynamic that’s quite a feat, for even though you may not like the way a family behaves individually at times, or toward each other, the striven for reconciliations are stronger if you desire them for the characters as well.

Allez, Eddy! (2012, Benelux Film Distributors)

So this film engages on those two levels, however, nearly from the start it also engages the imagination, which combines the intellect and the visceral in a number of ways. It achieves this engagement through the stylized, self-contained, imagined depictions of stories Freddy’s mother tells him. They are mainly tall tales of her fashioning designed to reinforce her rules but they do have a resonance later, and do play into the pure wonder of storytelling, which should be the foundation of all cinema, and ultimately art.

Oh, yes, and if you look at the synopsis much of the initial conflict is not only caused by Freddy’s wanting to be out of the house unattended, which is forbidden, but also his entering a supermarket-sponsored bike race, which is doubly forbidden. Thus, there’s the sports element perhaps 5th or 6th down the pecking order of things that stand out in this film. This makes it a film that features sports rather than a sports film, but it does that brilliantly. It uses Eddy Merckx’s quest for a 6th Tour de France title not only as a backdrop for the events of that summer, but also at one point as a tremendously artful parallel in a cross-cut sequence. There are other ways in which cycling is folded into the mix that are creative, but I will leave those as a surprise as well.

Allez, Eddy! plays all the right emotional notes throughout such that it can even earn a more subdued end quite well. It is uniquely beautiful, at times touching and warm, at times hilarious, often sad and empathy-inducing film that’s quite nearly always spot-on. It’s one of those films I come across once in a while that got better as I sat down to write about it. An extraordinarily well made film.

10/10

Extras

Allez, Eddy! (2012, Benelux Film Distributors)

A case of caveat emptor for those who seek out foreign region discs is that typically bonus features are not subtitled. Another word to the wise is if you do start scouring resellers, or foreign Amazon stores, become familiar with the words for “subtitles” and “English” in each. It’s usually fairly apparent. As per usual, the deleted scenes here are in Flemish and not subtitled. I confirmed that fact, but may see if they translate visually. So if you speak the language the film is in, as I speak Portuguese, you’ll get by, otherwise it’s good to keep in mind.

One very great bonus feature is a compelling, quirky and original short film called Vincent. The short is vaguely reminiscent of the early works of Robert Rodriguez, and you can clearly see the seeds for Allez, Eddy! being sewn in the style, content and tone.

Unless, it actually comes to region 1 at some point it won’t be a cheap or easy find, but it’s well worth it if you’re compelled to see it.

DVD Review: A Royal Affair

As I mentioned the last time I did a DVD review, I don’t do them too often. I do prefer writing them when I didn’t write about a film I enjoyed upon its initial release. Thus, when I saw that A Royal Affair was coming around on DVD I decided I would do so.

I saw the film just before my annual year-end dash to see a multitude of titles and bolster my BAM Awards field. Its being the Danish submission and eventual Golden Globe and Academy Award Nominee also helped bring me out to it. However, I will admit that its costume drama nature did give me some trepidation, as did, as much I hate to admit it, its length.

I was glad to report then, and even gladder now, that I enjoyed it a great deal and it held up to a re-screening.

What brings this film jumping off the screen is that it doesn’t put the cart before the horse. It doesn’t make costume or historical accuracy as paramount. It immediately places the audience in a position where it can identify with the young queen and quickly plunges us into the loveless, arranged royal marriage and the torrid romantic love affair. Nearly as soon as the players and politics can be quickly established, we go into the personal matter.

What watching the DVD, with all its features underlined, is that the tale was rendered in a rather universal way, even though director Nicolaj Arcel wanted to bring the story to the big screen because it’s a big, great Danish tale that had not yet seen a silver screen rendition. What’s more interesting is that he learned of the more rounded nature of Carolne Mathilde’s character and her diaries in researching the film, and it created a great frame.

And this background information also lends some insight into the selection of the film as the Danish representative. As much as I, and many others, enjoyed it, I cannot judge how it stacks up to its competition, but it has now been underscored for me the national importance the tale has.

Most of these factoids were things I gleaned by listening to the three interviews (Mads Mikkelsen, Nicolaj Arcel and Alicia Vikander). The other bonus features are the standard trailer and two interesting royal tidbits: portraits and bios of key players in the film as well as royal family trees which trace both the Danish Royal family just prior to the film to the present, as well as the British Royal family to the present, as Caroline Mathilde was English.

The film is highly engaging, well written and excellently performed. When all was said and done it was nominated for a BAM Award last year (Mikkel Bo Folsgaard for Best Supporting Actor0.

It is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Magnolia Pictures home video now.

9/10

DVD Review – Straight A’s

Introduction

I don’t frequently write DVD reviews, but upon seeing this film I was compelled to watch the special bonus features on it as well. Typically, I would stick to a review of the program on the disc, but have included thoughts on the features below.

Film

Straight A's (2013, Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment)

The film has a very basic synopsis and I will not elaborate much at all on that here. It’s likely better that you go in knowing that much or less about this film. Straight A’s really caught me by surprise as a refreshing, character-driven family dramedy, that doesn’t get bogged down in the histrionics that are potential pitfalls of a film with a synopsis such as this one.

I will readily admit that I just may have a soft spot for family dramedies. However, the recent film in the subgenre that comes to mind for me is Fireflies in the Garden, and that film pushes its melodramatic limits, whereas there is a fairly realistic grounding to be found here. Characters’ motivations and reactions make sense, things are played up as much as they need to be and are still fairly effective. While the overtures of external conflict are apparent, there is also a lot inner-turmoil that the film is wise enough to hold the reins on, and allow some disputes to be settled sub-textually rather than textually.

There are two things this film does very well early on that set it up for success: The first is that it establishes an overt structure for the titles that confirm the passage of time and that a new day has begun. I’m not one who is slavish towards a ticking clock mentality, but far too often films employing this sub-division approach lag because we as an audience have no clue what the endgame is, and they’d be better off letting time flow organically. This structure becomes intrinsic to this film and aids the flow of it.

That narrative structure established is confirmed by the voice over of the film’s narrator Charles (Thomas Riley Stewart) and that sets up one of the many wonderful symmetries of this film. Quite a few pieces of dialogue, motifs and themes come back around unexpectedly and close many a tidy, well-wrought circle. This is assisted by the strong, certain manner in which the narrative asserts itself.

In building these characters the film does well to split the job. It always shows something about them when they’re alone, usually visually, and is constantly rounding in interaction, but perhaps the best work the film does is through dialogue. The black sheep returning to the fold is Scott (Ryan Phillippe) who is always direct. There is also the fact that Charles is very intelligent that could lead to a number of pitfalls, but his dialogue isn’t instantly and persistently showy, and neither of the kids are condescended to. It’s just one tool that that the film uses to constantly add new definition to its main characters, but one of the best used.

One good example both of dialogue and of how the film avoids overplaying its hand is one of the lead-up-to events – an oral presentation Charles has before his whole school. In this sequence, I was reminded of how the speech in Crazy, Stupid, Love devolved from its diegetic script to being a very literal thinking out loud. There’s a clear message, but never one that’s bluntly said. It’s also another good case of follow-through in the subjective editing choices that are made.

There is also good use of montages and cross-cutting sequences that are more nested and less overt than you see many times. For as strong as the film is with its use of dialogue, it doesn’t ignore the visual end of things either and has quite a few visual signatures throughout.

Of course, any film described as character-driven needs its actors to deliver in order to work and this film has that as well. Ryan Phillippe seems to be quite connected throughout and fills in those blanks the script can’t; portraying troubled, irresponsible with good intentions that could just read like a jerk. Luke Wilson, like in Meeting Evil, finds a part that really seems to suit his type, his poker-faced, button-lipped character’s moment of decision reads better due the whole of his performance. Paquin’s facade of control is always erected, even as she loses it, and it makes her a presence that can be reasonable seem to be one that would be acquiesced to, even by Scott. There’s also Powers Boothe with a significant secondary role, that’s sensitive and understated. Boothe is an actor who you literally can’t see enough of. Last, but not least, there’s Riley Thomas Stewart who has the unenviable task of playing intelligent, precocious yet still childlike and endearing, and he succeeds with flying colors. Even when the dialogue is clearly designed to show his vast intellect it just sounds like Charles talking as opposed to an actor doing a line reading, which is a hard task with verbose lines.

Straight A‘s is the kind of film that might slip under one’s radar. I know I’m glad I found it, as it’s yet another dark horse for this year that I really connected with.

9/10

Special Features

Straight A's (2013, Millennium Entertainment)

While they are a little stripped-down with quick cuts to black and spotty audio, the three special features on the disc make up for in content what they lack in flash.

There’s a featurette, which is about trailer-length that’s a quick splicing together of interview and final film footage.

There are interviews with director, producers and several stars of the film, which run about 17 minutes and explore the themes of the work rather well without getting overly-bogged down in minutiae, but also lends a personal perspective from each participant with interesting tidbits.

Most interesting to me was the behind the scenes footage. They were usually rather quick shots taken during production of the set-up of shots, gear being put in place or moved, takes being done, or re-done and the like. This runs around six minutes. It’s bereft of commentary so it would likely be more intriguing for a filmmaker, but it is an interesting touch to be added to the package.

Straight A‘s is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

61 Days of Halloween: The Mist

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

When it was released The Mist was one of those films that just fell through the cracks for many. Mixed reviews are likely the reason. It is a film that should be seen if only as a conversation piece because it does have one of “those” endings, you know the kind that will get you talking and will inflame passions. In other words, it takes a risk and that alone makes it worth watching.

However, for the two hours leading up to said ending it earns that “should be watched” distinction. The running time alone is worth noting. Few films in the horror genre have enough substance to add a half-hour to the usual running time to build character but if a film can it should. Knowing who these people are and whether we as an audience love them or hate them makes a huge difference. The personal dramas and threats keep us locked in when there is no threat from the creatures in the mist.

The situation in which these varied characters find themselves in is built up steadily, slowly and sinisterly; such that before any of the characters realize the peril they are in we are already feeling tense. In combining two techniques of the genre we get in this film a very compelling drama with a horrific backdrop: characters trapped in a building with assailants outside (reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead) and a multi-character yet character-driven tale, which is a forte of Stephen King’s, whose novella is the source material for this film. Darabont’s handling of King’s difficult-to-adapt material is again nearly spot-on, Darabont creates and in some ways amplifies King’s effective scenario and makes it one of the most enthralling and captivating no-win horror scenarios ever created. There just seems to be no escaping it.

In a horror film one can forgive flawed acting from a lead, Thomas Jane, but the antagonists and most of the cast, especially in a film such as this need to be solid and they are. Andre Braugher plays his character convincingly enough such that you despise him, forgetting that it’s the part and not the man annoying you. Marcia Gay Harden, as always is brilliant, and downright frightening in this role. Her ability to convince those in the supermarket, though a bit overwrought at times, is fantastically illustrated. Some of the smaller parts are also very well-played like the Woman with Children at Home (Melissa McBride), Nathan Gamble as Billy (most well known from Dolphin Tale) and the Terrified Woman (Kim Wall).

The thing which is the most inconsistent in the film is the CGI. It seems whenever there was a good to great sequence of effects they would extend it too long or cut too close to the action and the illusion would fall apart. Typically, CG looks better on DVD than in the theatre, but not here. Some elements, like the bugs, were very impressive but the CG was not judiciously used and not carefully crafted enough, which is the only major inconsistency in the film. However, there has been worse it’s just upsetting to see such a glaring problem in a film which is of a very high caliber most of the time.

The ending is a conversation piece. It is strong and unlike King’s story it’s not open. King approved of this change. Certain elements are very effective some aren’t. What you make of it is up to you. It does not detract from the whole and the film is definitely worth watching.

This review pertains to the standard edition DVD not the two-disc special edition.

8/10

Make Your Own Film Festival- Pick A Country (Part 1 of 7)

Michel Joelsas in The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (City Lights Pictures)

Windows doesn’t discriminate between regions any longer, and neither does Macintosh. Even if they do you should get a warning when inserting a Non-Region 1 DVD (meaning one made for distribution outside the US, Canada and Mexico) saying what region it is and asking if you want to change your computer’s region. Typically, there has been a set limit on how many times you could change regions before it became a permanent switch. Even if your computer is more finicky you still have an opportunity to watch many more DVDs, many of which you can only find online, that you never thought you could before.

Some foreign films have limited appeal and distribution internationally. With that in mind you should take that into account when traveling overseas and pick up some movies you won’t find in the US. Taking that in to consideration this critic made a number of purchases when in Brazil in 2008 to set up yet another mini-festival.

O Ano em Que Meus Pais Sairam de Ferias (The Year My Parents Went on Vacation)


In the way pretty much only a Brazilian film can this film combines football (the global variety), politics and coming of age. A child’s parents are forced to leave the country in 1970, months before the World Cup, due to their opposition to the dictatorship. He is left with his grandparents but fate has other plans for him.

What develops from there is a very interesting and very steadily built drama. It is a testament to the Brazilian people. The story is literally told like a slice of life in which tenebrous things can be going on in the background and all around but life goes on and it still is for the most part fine. There obviously is some focus on the revolt but they are also seen through the eyes of a child who only wants for his parents to return.

The end of the film, which merges the World Cup final with a police raid and then the denouement with us seeing what becomes of Mauro, is also perfect. This was a reality that faced many Brazilians of all walks of life in this era. It is quite a good, unfiltered, unsentimental coming of age film and like most that are good it’s different and so are the circumstances.

Beware of “Composite” Serials

In my previous post I asserted that, for the most part, I want this blog to be a positive place and I stand by that so please take this more as consumer advocacy than film nerd complaining, though in truth it is a little of both.

Now a little bit of background: I absolutely positively love the serial format, aka chapter plays, aka cliffhangers. Believe me when I say they are a sort of cinematic narcotic. It’s the simplest kind of story-telling done in the best possible way and more often or not they compel you to keep going and leave you wanting more. What’s not to love? I will admit that I have not seen as many as I’d like to because it is kind of a leap of faith to start one. Twelve to fifteen episodes at 20 minutes a pop is a larger commitment than you realize.

However, those I’ve seen I’ve greatly enjoyed for one reason for another. Furthermore their cinematic significance is not confined to being a footnote of a bygone era but also have left a lasting legacy. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both admit to owing a debt to the serial format in constructing both Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Now the point of all this backstory is so that you might better comprehend my anger when I recount the following tale as I learned of an industry practice the hard way. Whether they were created for a theatrical re-release, television or video so-called “theatrical” cuts of serials exist. Meaning, that tidy, condensed, at times confusing versions of stories intended to be much longer exist.

This is what I fell victim to. I had a complete version of Blake of Scotland Yard on VHS. I used a DVD/VHS deck to transfer it to a DVD. That deck broke and nothing else plays the DVDs. This is a situation I am still trying to to remedy. So cut to the present: I am hankering for serials anew, more specifically my favorites. I see Blake of Scotland Yard on Amazon and order it. Now I got two more serials there which are whole but this one is a so-called “composite.” Something I am just learning about and passing along.

So I may or may not watch this confounding version which is 73 minutes long as opposed to 303, (over four times shorter!) but I will not enjoy it.

So, buyer beware: before renting or buying a serial I implore you to check the running time they typically should run well in excess of three hours, so anything in typical feature length range is cut.

Happy viewing.