Thursday, July 31, 2014
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POSTED: Saturday, April 20, 2013, 10:32 AM
Do the Macarena. Macarena Garcia stars as a bullfighting Spanish Snow White in "Blancanieves."

An inspiring and intoxicating mix of the old and the new, Blancanieves – a Spanish black-and-white silent that takes the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White fable and flips it and spins it, wondrously – snuck into the Ritz Five last week. If you loved how the Oscar-winning The Artist celebrated the spirit and technique of vintage Silent Era classics, you’ll love Blancanieves even more so. Pablo Berger’s playful but perceptive gem is set in 1920s Seville, and tells the tale of Carmen (Sofia Oria as a child, Macarena Garcia as a woman),  raised by her wicked stepmother (Maribel Verdú, of Pan's Labyrinth and Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and then cast out, presumed killed. But of course Carmen, aka Blancanieves, isn’t dead. Instead, she takes up with a wandering band of dwarf toreadors, learning to fight bulls. Carmen becomes a star, in fact, in the bullring, which doesn’t make her old stepmom very happy.

Dreamy and surreal, gorgeously shot, with a rich and compelling score from composer Alfonso de Vilallonga, Blancanieves pays homage to the Golden Age of European cinema, and revels in the dark magic of fairy tales. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. Four stars out of four stars, it is easily among the year's best films.

POSTED: Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 10:06 AM
Chadwick Boseman is the star of '42' -- a biopic on the career of Jackie Robinson.

42, starring Chadwick Boseman as Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson – the player who shattered Major League Baseball’s color barrier – shattered a box office record, too. The film, with Harrison Ford as Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, scored the best opening weekend numbers -- $27. 4 million – of any baseball-themed motion picture, ever. What’s weird, though, is that the film 42 bumped fropm the top slot is The Benchwarmers, the 2006 screwball comedy starring John Heder, Rob Schneider and David Spade. Its opening weekend grosses: $19.7 million. Who knew? Who can even remember?

Number three on the list is a bit more reputable: Moneyball  (2011), with Brad Pitt, which took in $19.5 million. Rounding out the top five in the baseball box office stats: The Rookie (2002), with Dennis Quaid, at $16 million, and the Geena Davis/Madonna/Tom Hanks all-femme baseball pic, A League of their Own (1992), at $13 million.

POSTED: Monday, April 15, 2013, 1:59 PM
Newlyweds Sybil Seely and Buster Keaton look flummoxed.

The late Roger Ebert once called sad-eyed Buster Keaton “the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies.” On Thursday night, April 18, Not So Silent Cinema – a project created by Philly/Boston composer Brendan Cooney, dedicated to presenting vintage silents with newly minted live musical accompaniment -- will put Ebert’s decree to the test, offering up four early ‘20s Keaton gems: “The High Sign,” “The Goat,” “Cops” and “One Week.”

Cooney, a founding member of the West Philadelphia Orchestra, plays piano for the evening’s screenings, joined by Andy Bergman on clarinet and Kyle Tuttle on banjo. The Not So Silent Trio’s new work for the Keaton shorts is rooted in, yes, American roots music – ragtime, old-timey blues and bluegrass, Klezmer and hot jazz.

These Keaton pieces are absolutely wonderful. In “The Goat” (1921), Buster is mistaken for Dead Shot Dan, a “highly intelligent and kindly faced murderer,” and comic mishaps ensue.   In “The High Sign” (1920) he plays a truly conflicted dude – a drifter hired to operate an amusement park shooting gallery who then gets recruited to both protect a businessman and kill him. The opening inter-title sums up the existential dilemma: “Our Hero came from Nowhere  -- he wasn’t going Anywhere and got kicked off Somewhere.”

POSTED: Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 10:00 AM
"Pleased to Meet Me" is a featured film in the XPN Music Film Fest.

Yes, John Doe, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright  and Joe Henry – all in the same movie!  The folks at ‘XPN, in cahoots with the Philadelphia Film Society, have put together a four-day fest of films celebrating music and musicians, and driven by song. One of the highlights has to be Pleased to Meet Me, screening Friday. X-man Doe stars as a rocker whose career has hit the rocks, so to speak (bankruptcy, a lawsuit, writer’s block), and who throws himself into a 24-hour recording session with a group of totally disparate (and a few desperate) players to try to save the day. Mann is the producer who puts Doe’s character, Pete Jones, together with Henry, Wainwright et al. Director Archie Borders, joined by Doe and Wainwright (whose character is a theremin-ist) will be on hand for a post-screening discussion with World Café host David Dye.

Another highlight, also on Friday: a live performance from Future Folk, aka Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz, stars of The History of Future Folk. The film, an audience award winner at last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, is an extremely likable low-fi/sci-fi tale about two space aliens who land in Brooklyn, discover music, and start pickin’ and playin’ -- with red buckets on their heads. The movie shows at 6:45pm at World Cafe Live.

Descriptions of all the films and a full schedule can be accessed here.

POSTED: Monday, April 8, 2013, 11:14 AM
This image provided by Harrod Blank shows an undated image of his father Les Blank. Blank, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker who focused his camera on cultural corners ranging from blues music, to garlic lovers, to shoe-eating artists, died Sunday April 7, 2013 at age 77, his son said. Blank died at his home in Berkeley, Calif. nearly a year after being diagnosed with bladder cancer, Harrod Blank said. (AP Photo/Harrod Blank) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Les Blank used to screen his 1980 doc, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, in a unique “format” -- a kind of funky version of Smell-O-Vision. That is, he’d get the film rolling and then start cookin’ up a pot of garlic, letting the aroma waft over the crowd.

Similarly, when Blank showed Always for Pleasure, his 1978 celebration of all things Cajun (the cuisine, the music, the people), he was known to serve up red beans and rice from the back of the house.

There was even a culinary angle to his short 1980 doc, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” – the result of a bet Herzog made with Errol Morris: that Herzog would eat his shoe if Morris ever got around to finishing his pet cemetery doc, Gates of Heaven. Morris did finish, Herzog did eat his shoe (spiced, seasoned and cooked at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ famous eatery), and Blank captured the moment on film.

POSTED: Thursday, April 4, 2013, 5:39 PM

Much will be written in the next few days about Roger Ebert, the prolific, passionate and perceptive film critic, author and TV personality who passed away Thursday, age 70, after a long running and defiant battle with cancer. I picked up Ebert’s collection, The Great Movies II, just to revisit the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s sharp, smart, never highfalutin but always inspiring writing, and found this absolutely wonderful, and poignant passage in his entry on the Three Colors Trilogy, by Krzysztof Kieslowski: (The boldface below is mine.)

“Because  he made most of his early work in Poland during the Cold War, and because his masterpiece, The Decalogue, consists of ten one-hour films that do not fit easily on the multiplex conveyor belt, he has still not received the kind of recognition given those he deserves to be named with, like Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, Keaton and Bunuel. He is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all.

 “He often deals with illness, loss, and death, but deep pools of humor float beneath the surfaces of his films. There is a sequence in White (1994) where his hero, a Polish hairdresser, is so desperately homesick in Paris that he arranges to be sent back to Warsaw curled up inside a suitcase. His friend at the other end watches the airport conveyor belt with horror. The bag is not there. It has been stolen by thieves who break the lock, find only the little man, beat him savagely, and throw him on a rubbish heap. Staggering to his feet, he looks around, bloody but triumphant, and cries `Home at last!’”

POSTED: Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 11:08 AM
West Indian lilacs, anyone? Laura Dern and Sam Neill worry over a wheezy triceratops in "Jurassic Park."

Going back to turn Steven Spielberg’s 20-year-old dino thriller Jurassic Park into a 3D spectacle (required to watch with, yes, 3D spectacles) is almost as egregious an error, it turns out, as going back and bringing tyrannosaurs and triceratops to life again in the first place.

You’re not going to lose a limb like poor chain-smoking computer nerd Samuel L. Jackson does in the movie, but you may lose your patience while you’re sitting there in the dark. Remember the seamless way those gallimimuses (or is that gallimimi?) stampeded across the verdant Isla Nublar field, almost mowing Sam Neill  and those two kids down? Remember when that same trio is perched in the high branches of some Cretaceous-era tree, gazing out on a horizon dotted with a herd of giant grazing brachiosaurs? Visual effects technology was downright primitive back in 1993, but the CG artists, model artists, matte painters and digital renderers – Spielberg’s whole talented crew -- managed to create the illusion that Richard Attenborough’s genetically engineered theme park off of the coast of Costa Rica was real.

Ironically, Jurassic Park’s 3D conversion actually undermines that illusion, and compromises the experience. When Spielberg and his great cinematographer Dean Cundey shot the film in Hawaii back in 1992, they weren’t thinking 3D, and so foreground and background, actors, props and animatronic beasties were framed and shot with a traditional 2D viewing in mind. And, of course, with the dino visual effects in mind – how to make those raptors and tyrannosaurs look as if they’re really commingling with Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Wayne Knight and all. But the “depth mapping” and depth-image rendering required for a 3D conversion (which typically runs $10 million to $15 million) exaggerates and re-emphasizes the way those scenes are composed. Now , when that giant T Rex bears down on the two Jurassic Park Jeeps and their scared-silly passengers, the 3D retrofit makes the scene look phonier, cheesier, almost like 1950s sci-fi. The fakery becomes more apparent.

POSTED: Monday, April 1, 2013, 4:48 PM

“So, you wanna dance?” Valley Girl, the ultimate ‘80s teen movie – starring Nicolas Cage as a Hollywood punk and Deborah Foreman as the suburban high schooler he falls for (and vice versa) (and whatever happened to Foreman, anyway?) -- gets a much-deserved screening Tuesday night, April 2, at PhilaMOCA.

The powerhouse local band Sweatheart  (“"If Sparks, The Bangles, and Blue Oyster Cult made a smoothie, it might smell a little like Sweatheart" - Naeem Juwan) will rip through selected tracks from the film’s time-capsule soundtrack: songs by The Flirts, Modern English, The Psychedelic Furs and Sparks (“Angst in My Pants,” yes! ) and more. Valley Girl, PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, 531 N. 12th Street.  8 p.m. for the film, 9:30 p.m. for the music. Info:

About this blog

Steven Rea has been an Inquirer movie critic since 1992. He was born in London, raised in New York City, and has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Iowa City, Iowa. His column, "On Movies," appears Sundays in Arts & Entertainment, his reviews appear in the Weekend section on Fridays, and his blog, On Movies Online, can be found here. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

Steven Rea's previous blog posts can be found here. Read his most recent columns and reviews, here. He is the author of the book “Hollywood Rides a Bike,” and also curates the movie stars and bicycling photo blog, Rides A Bike.

Reach Steven at

Steven Rea Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
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