Monday, February 10, 2020

Immigrant Reform: Anthony Mann's "Border Incident"

Like many of his contemporaries, director Anthony Mann's filmography swept across the decades of Hollywood's evolution from the dramas of the 30's, the bleak film noir of the 40's and finally ascending to the heights of big budget spectacles of the late 50's and early 60's. Just looking at the titles that dot his resume (from hard-nosed classics like "T-Men" and "Winchester '73" to the pomp and circumstance of "El Cid"), Mann undulated with the times like the best of them.

Unfortunately, I feel woefully inept at accurately responding to the breadth of his films as I've seen so few. I'm pretty damn sure I've seen "Raw Deal", "T-Men" and his western forays with Jimmy Stewart, "Winchester '73" and "The Naked Spur" on TCM or Bravo TV showings back in the day, although I don't have firm documentation in the likes of Netflix markings or Letterboxd notes... which seems to suggest that, nowadays, if this technology isn't checked, the past might not even exist.

All of this is to say I've set out to right this wrong, and if my first jab at Mann's content is any indication, I'm in for a vibrant viewing experience. Released in 1949 and starring Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy, "Border Incident" posits a spy thriller framework over the liberal minded expose of exploitative immigrant culture and the deep-seated (and deep pocketed) conspiracy that aims to use and dispose of them when the work is finished. As two police officers on opposite sides of the border seeking to end the cycle of violence, Montalban and Murphy go undercover- Montalban as a migrant worker desperate to cross the US border and find work and Murphy as one of the middlemen stealing documents to cover the tracks of those in charge.

Full of deep focus rack shots and sinewy midnight lighting- urgent because most of the film takes place in the wee hours of the night where malice and discretion are apt bedfellows- "Border Incident" parlays both the best of film noir and subterfuge thrillers in the way it establishes strong tension around believable characters stuck in-between the (at one point literal) grinding wheels of evil. In fact, although Montalban is the real star, lengthy portions of the film dart away from both he and Murphy, giving weight to the parasitic nature of the shadowy organizations in gritty detail. The forces of evil are embedded in the canyon border landscape so deeply that when one character thinks he's gotten away to safety, he runs straight into the warm den of a woman who promptly calls her husband.... and he arrives with shotgun in hand to clean up the mess for his superiors. No one said cleaning up the border would be easy.

Made right before his run of noirs would be over and he'd embark on a series of westerns throughout the 50's, Mann's "Border Incident" feels especially dark, full of heroic compromise and real-world nihilism that cancel each other out. It's also quite the prescient film. If not for a somewhat tacked-on voice over that closes the film with a hint of optimism, "Border Incident" could be released today and we'd all nod and agree that the problem is as divisive and violent as ever.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Moments of 2019

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (now in its 21st edition!)) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.




The completely disgusted glare a bank robber gives Nicole Kidman as a splash of purple dye explodes in slow motion around him and the drop of a bag before he re-enters the bank. “Destroyer”

Customers in a dilapidated movie theater slipping on 3D glasses, which serves as our key to do the same for an extended 50 minute long take through the somnambulist mind of our male protagonist in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

From the window of a small prop plane, Joe Pesci’s car held in a slow pan to the left as it disappears from view.   “The Irishman”

In “Apollo 11”, the readings of heart rate and blood pressure from each astronaut. And Buzz Aldrin coming in at a cool 88 compared to Neil Armstrong’s 110.

Greta (Isabella Huppert) standing completely motionless in the street, a gargoyle keeping watch over her prey (Chloe Grace Moretz) in Neil Jordan’s potboiler deluxe “Greta”

“The Beach Bum”- Sprinkled in red light, Moondog (Matthew McCoughnahy) and Lingerie (Snoop Dogg) wax poetic against a dark blue sky with Miami’s lights twinkling in the background. It may be a frayed interpretation of life at the margins, but Harmony Korine envisioned some of the year’s most precisely imagined images

A stuffed animal tiger becomes a full sized one- and the gasp that Estrella (Paola Lara) emits when she first sees him lying in front of her.   “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

“Little Women”  Two timelines of running down the stairs with drastically (and heartbreaking) different results. Just one of the many thrilling ways Greta Gerwig plays with her literal translation.

“But what about the Ken Burns documentary we were gonna watch tonight?”   “Fuck The Dust Bowl”    “Booksmart”

In “Caballerango”, the camera observing a horse on a ridge line, and then the sudden shift to catch it as it momentarily runs out of view.

The guttural, howling cry of a woman (Florence Pugh) doubled over on the lap of her boyfriend as the camera slowly pans out the snowy window behind them.   “Midsommar”

Otis (Noah Jupe) translating the voices of his sparring parents during a contentious phone call. Humor and incisive trauma inflicted all at once.  “Honey Boy”

A woman (Jillian Bell) seeing herself in the reflection of a pretzel cart.  “Brittany Runs a Marathon”

The needle drop of a Scott Walker song that harmonizes perfectly with the drugging of a john in “Hustlers”

Waiting in the hallway for an old lover to ascend, the way Salvador (Antonio Banderas) wipes at his face and goes through a range of emotions.  “Pain and Glory”

Emily (Taylor Russell) telling her father (Sterling K. Brown) that she could have stopped the horror that shattered their lives and the way she breaks down.   “Waves”

The canvas of boats that sail out to meet and bring home the “Maiden”

In “Marriage Story”, Adam Driver singing “Being Alive”, and then impulsively running back to the microphone after starting to sit down, as if when he stops singing, his marriage will be over.

“Geminin Man” and a motorcycle chase through the streets

A slow pan backwards through a group of white-dress clad people standing in front of their respective slots at an outdoor dinner table, and then the slight bow along with them as they all take their seats in unison. In Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”, his camera is just another specter. 

“The Last Black Man In San Francisco”- A man preaching fire and brimstone next to a garbage-filled Oceanside while standing on a milk crate, and the slight smile and wave he gives as a car passes by, breaking his momentary anger into neighborly gesture  

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” - Fish swimming in the muddy water of a puddle.

Tao Zhao and the way the camera fiercely lingers on her as she steps from the backseat of a car and fires a gun in the air, then proceeds to walk around the car and prevent any more harm coming from a gang of thugs in front of her.  “Ash Is Purest White”

A room full of lawyers easily ordering from a lunch menu, and then the slow confusion of Henry (Adam Driver) not knowing what he wants.  “Marriage Story”

“You don’t know how good of a friend you got here.” “Oh, I know.”  No, you DON’T’ know.” Harvey Keitel basically telling Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) ho close he came to being killed.   “The Irishman”

An underwater swim that transitions from nervous flirtation to crushing realism… and the look that Katherine Devers gives upon surfacing.  “Booksmart”

Pretty much anything Martin Lawrence did in “The Beach Bum”, but especially saying “be careful, you may shoot a dolphin” when MoonDog fires a gun into the air on his boat.

Amy (Florence Pugh) sternly describing how marriage is an economic proposition.  “Little Women”






Friday, January 17, 2020

My Faves of 2019

20. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)


Assuredly building a body of work that rings every ounce of desperation, energy and intense movement out of an already nervy New York City, the Safdie Brothers' "Uncut Gems" may be the definitive word on the subject. Starring Adam Sandler as a gambler/jewelry dealer whose every moment on-screen is spent wheeling, dealing and driving the audience for a heart attack, the film is assaultive  but essential.

19. Caballerango (Juan Pablo Gonzales)


Juan Pablo Gonzales' pensive documentary "Caballerango" is many things- an anthropological study of time and place, an excavation of memory for one family's pangs of grief around the suicide of their son, and a masterful example of our landscape's powerful ability to dwarf all of us. There are two shots in this film that stand as some of the most moving in years- a long monologue from a migrant worker about the state of hopelessness that seems to swath this small village followed by the truck he's sitting in taking off and slowly climbing up a gill, revealing just how close the camera has been to him the whole time. The second is the final shot as the camera watches two horses from a distance before they gently jerk out of range, causing the stationary camera to reflexively pan after them, as if the animals suddenly realized they were being watched and wanted to get away. It's a nice summation of the film itself, revealing that no soul (animal or man) wants to be bottled up for long.

18. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar)


Pedro Almodovar's quasi autobiographical effort about a filmmaker addicted to pain medication, drugs and a sense of reconciliation with his past is a gentle and humane thing. As the Almodovar stand-in, Antonio Banderas has never been better. Oscillating between present tense and (supposed) past, "Pain and Glory" feels just as cathartic as something Fellini would have made, exorcising the demons of art, romance and sexual identity. It's Almodovar's best film in years.

17. Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa Lopez)


Adding itself to a long line of cherished films about the nightmarish definitions young children apply to real world horrors, Issa Lopez's "Tigers Are Not Afraid" is startling and brilliant for how it deals with both of those layers. Following a rag-tag group of homeless children fending for themselves in a Mexican City hell where everything is run by drug cartels and maintains a post-apocalyptic vibe, the film soon gives enormous heart to its young protagonists and their daily struggles. Mixing tense crime thriller aspects with the veil of a horror film (equally frightening for the way Lopez visualizes her ghosts as dripping, moldy, black souls reaching out for anything), "Tigers Are Not Afraid" makes plain that the line between both genres is negligible. This film slipped through the cracks this year and I urge everyone to give it a chance on home viewing.

16. Shadow (Zhang Yimou)  


Crafting ground breaking and genre busting films for over 30 years now, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou shows no signs of decline with his latest masterpiece, "Shadow". Playing like a twisted Shakespearean drama with royal intrigue, ghostly doppelgangers and  maddening betrayals, what's most bracing about the entire thing is its visual palette. Using muted colors and taking place in a landscape drenched in endless rain showers, Zhang allows the neutral scope to seep under our skin before shocking us with buckets of blood later on, making the gnarly bloodshed that much more poetic when it happens. Oh yes, there's a pretty damn good story here as well about warring factions, hidden kings and confused relationships. It all blends into a perfectly choreographed mythic tale that only Yimou could sustain.

15. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)


Imagining Mike Leigh tackle a historical act of massacre seems like an oblique fit for his intensely talky and introspective human nature dramas. I'm so glad he made this film, and yes, it does fit nicely as a very talky effort that exhaustively examines and discusses the swirling politics and history leading up to the event. The first 2 hours can be head-spinning for how many characters are introduced and have their say about the divisive lines between laymen and the governing body. And the final half hour....spent in an explosive   deconstruction of soldiers marching and killing scores of innocent protesters is enough to make one's blood boil. "Peterloo" is an immaculately rendered film of time and place (oh the locations and settings just reek of nineteenth century miserablism) whose distorted, complicated history is made quite clear by Leigh's unending craftmanship.

14. Non Fiction (Olivier Assayas)


For a film largely concerned with the marching evolution of technology, Olivier Assayas "Non Fiction" remains grounded in a very traditional framework of simple mood and antiquated tempo. Another talky like he's been making for over 20 years now, his latest film crackles with intelligence and sinewy humor as several couples are having affairs with each other, smoking cigarettes and talking around the sadness in their married lives. It also helps the film stars Juliette Binoche, Guillame Canet and Vincent Macaigne as said couples. In the background of it all, Assayas also touches on prescient topics such as the disappearance of the written word and our world's dedication (or lack thereof) to its production. In my original review of the film, I called this film the next continuation in the life of the harried teenagers from "Cold Water" (1994). I look forward to however else Assayas wants to shape this universe of people.

13. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)


Greta Gerwig's latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel has stuck with me for days. Incredible acting, a sly sense of opening up the tale with a thrilling sense of editing, and an atmosphere that perfectly captures the alternatively freewheeling and morose swaths of fate that affect the four sisters, the film is a triumph of small emotions and gentle passage of time. No matter how small the part, each and every character is rendered as a vivid person. And, it only further cements the talents of all involved as defining artists for what will be decades to come.

12. Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)


I have to begin by asking why it's taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film "Keeping the Faith". I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90's. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, "Motherless Brooklyn" still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50's set New York where the sky's the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel's tourette's disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he's investigating. While the narrative of "Motherless Brooklyn" ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what's not pedestrian is Norton's supreme handling of the film's pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they're never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a magnificently contemplative work and a seriously overlooked gem from 2019.

11. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)


It's not very hard to make San Francisco look dreamy and romantic on screen, but what director Joe Talbot does with "The Last Black Man In San Francisco"- besides a fully realized and heartfelt relationship between two best friends- is create a film of otherworldly beauty and quirky sentiments that feels wholly original. Actors Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are revelations as marginal personalities in a gentrified San Francisco who make it their mission to save and restore a large house that once belonged to one of their grandfathers. A beautiful soundtrack, a host of memorable secondary characters and a complete control of mood situates "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" as a breakout effort from all involved.

10. Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer)


There was no better movie-going experience in 2019 than the Texas premiere of Eddie Murphy's affectionate ode to 70's filmmaking and maverick-outsider status than "Dolemite Is My Name". An audience rolling with every joke and riding the wave of every emotion elicited the exact same reaction I'm sure the original "Dolemite" film did for African-American audiences in the early 70's desperate for a film idol that wasn't James Bond or Dirty Harry. Profane and uproariously funny, "Dolemite Is My Name" is everything a crowd pleasing film is designed to do. Toss in a whiz-bang cast of associates such as Wesley Snipes and DaVine Joy Randolph, and the film far outstretches its modest Netflix designed small-screen ambitions into an expansive comedy whose main intention is bawdy reverence for a true cinematic pioneer.

9. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)


About two-thirds of the way through- and once the film's teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend- "Booksmart" finds its footing and attains something quite terrific. The film's patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood. Just a great film all around.

8. Ad Astra (James Gray) 


Even though it resides in a loopy science fiction template that features ghost ships, nerve-jangling space walks and knife fights inside a cockpit, James Gray's "Ad Astra" is a lot closer to his morose studies of male psychosis and obsessive choices than it first appears. In fact, it makes for a nice double feature with his previous masterpiece "The Lost City of Z" in which pioneers of terrain and courage venture farther out into the unknown than anyone before them. In "Ad Astra", that explorer is astronaut Brad Pitt, chosen to travel to Mars (a planet that houses the last stable outpost of humanity in near future of colonization) in order to hopefully coax his lost father (also an astronaut) to stop sending chaotic micro bursts of energy from a failed mission decades ago. I know, it does preposterous when explained, but Gray manages to create a moody and introspective work of art that challenges science fiction conventions in its quiet remorselessness.

7. Destroyer (Karyn Kusama)


There's a trend in modern crime films I like to call "New American Miserablism". I suppose the grandfathers were David Fincher and Michael Mann, now carried forward by any young filmmaker treading into the noir tinged waters. Even the small screen isn't immune, specifically behind the grandiose darkness inherent in Nic Pizzaloto's "True Detective" series. Granted, even I'm worn down by the heaviness permeating these efforts. So why is Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer"- a crime film especially miserable, right down to the grizzled makeup coated across Nicole Kidman's face to exemplify the haggard weight of her world bending upon her- different? Well, it is and isn't. The film trades in so many themes and situations that have dotted the noir landscape in the past, however Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi resuscitate their effort into something special because of the layered storytelling whose timelines slowly reveal a painful tendency to protect only the best things from a very bad time. In addition, Kusama's crisp style renders a ubiquitous Los Angeles with new eyes, portraying viaducts and side street banks with just as much underlying ferocity as many other films have treated the beaches and Pacific Palisades mansions. "Destroyer" is a tough, meandering and ultimately a fragile personification of 'miserablism' done with grace and, well, heart.

6. Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)


Although it's not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child's nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It's what Joon Ho does best- wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Joon Ho. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I'd soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, "Parasite" is a master firing on all cylinders.

5. Waves (Trey Edward Shults)




A film of two distinct halves. First, an untethered camera floating with a boisterous soundtrack and histrionic emotions with a story that feels right at home in any young adult/teen fiction novel as athletic Kelvin Harrison Jr. deals with a diminishing body, an inebriated state of mind and a relationship that wrecks havoc on everyone involved. It almost all seems like too much. But that's the point of Shults' magnificent work as it pivots in the second half to younger sister Taylor Russell and how the somber reckoning of her family settles around her delicate shoulders. With "Waves", Shults has confirmed himself as a towering voice in modern independent cinema, enraging some and bewitching others. I look forward to whatever he does next.


4. Climax (Gaspar Noe)


Gaspar Noe's latest is a delirious concoction of New Wave musical and Euro-freak out horror film, fire-branded by his swerving aesthetic and provocative sound design that feels more like an assault than a viewing experience. Broken into three parts- including an opening of each character talking from a television set that serves more as a nerdy namedrop for the influences of Noe via the spines of books and VHS tapes cluttered around the image rather than a proper introduction- "Climax" then morphs into a punishing segment of carefully choreographed dance numbers interrupted by the young dancers' vulgar and misogynistic conversations about their carnal desires.... which serves as an apt reminder that Noe once made a film titled "Carne". From there, the film really goes off the rails as someone spikes the communal punch with LSD and the cloistered dance performers each burrow down their individual holes of tormented hell. Some screw the night away. Others fight. Others wander the neon-lit lodge their locked in like specters haunting the corridors of uninhibited youth, all captured by Noe's now trademark long takes that plunge us in, out, and around the confusion and bad trips. It's an unsettling portrait of modern youth, and one of Noe's best films that continues to pursue his aggressive vision of wasted society.

3. A Hidden Life (Terence Malick)




I can't even count how many times I gasped at the visual beauty present in Terence Malick's latest work of cinematic poetry. And then those visuals were overtaken by the emotional gut punch in its story of faithful farmer Franz (August Diehl) and his refusal to serve for Germany in World War II, choosing to stand his ground and be a conscientious objector. I've been out on the last few Malick films (his last great one being "The New World" in 2005), but "A Hidden Life" struck me as something staggering, heartbreaking and completely worthy of Malick's re-anointment as cinema's most purely spiritual guide. It's one of the few films whose passionate inner resolve of its protagonist seems to melt through the screen into our own hearts. 

2. Transit (Christian Petzold)


On another given day, this could easily slide into the top spot on this list. Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, "Transit" is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from its original intentions of the novel's World War II experiences into the sleek and metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale of today juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear- although some would argue the occupying forces are stronger and more insidious than ever. Like Petzold's previous film "Phoenix", he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving the inhabitants to pick up the personal pieces in its wake. And like "Phoenix", Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity, it only further solidifies the fact that he's one of the two or three best filmmakers in the world today.


1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)




With his previous film "Silence" (2016) and now "The Irishman", Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), "The Irishman" may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it's a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it's a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Retro Active: The Best Non 2019 Films I Saw in 2019

10. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?  (2017) - Documentarian Travis Wilkerson's explorations into history and first person involvement are dry yet highly involving stories. His latest film, "Did You Ever Wonder Who Fired the Gun?" lays bare his own family's sordid past with his great grandfather's possible involvement with a racially motivated murder in the mid 40's. In tracking every possible lead, no matter how tangential, Wilkerson has created an intimately epic incision about a host of ideas, made all the more uncomfortable because it involves people in his own family. How he weaves together home video footage, first person interviews and stately images of long-forgotten graveyards not only speaks to the grace with which he tackles the project, but his honest intentions of not wanting to forget anymore.

9. Split Image (1982) - Seeing this just a few weeks after Ari Aster's "Midsommar" and the resemblance of mind control and the grueling battle for what some people believe are good for them are surprisingly similar. Directed with bare-bones clarity by Ted Kotcheff, "Split Image" is about a young man named Danny (Michael O Keefe) who falls under the spell of a woman (Karen Black) and the religious organization she's a part of led by domineering hippie Peter Fonda. The entire second half of the film involves Danny's family and their attempts to pry him away from the clutches of the group. Enter a live-wire character played to the extreme by James Woods and "Split Image" becomes a ferocious examination of power and influence on both sides, with a question clearly asking which one is better, if either? I"m not sure why this one isn't mentioned more often. Perhaps with the recent passing of Fonda, people will seek it out.

8. The Mayo Clinic (2017) - Long being a fan of Ken Burns and his exhaustive forays into the various corners of our culture, society and locales, his ode to the magic, faith and science of the revered Mayo Clinic falls perfectly in line with his enduring vision. While he always finds nuggest of humanity and wisdom in each of his documentaries, this one wades into the emotional deep end as people are literally going to this place in order to save their lives. The way the film switches back and forth between realized history and the history being made in current patients is, at times, overwhelmingly heartfelt. Burns, next to Frederick Wiseman, remains the greatest documentor of our lives yet.

7. Honeysuckle Rose (1982) - Expecting any real narrative drive from a film featuring Willie Nelson and The Family dealing with life touring on the road and avoiding their expected duties at home would be quite inane. Directed by Jerry Schatzberg with the same sun-drenched rural panache that made his 1973 film "Scarecrow" so marvelous, "Honeysuckle Rose" is really just an excuse to luxuriate in the cosmic cowboy lifestyle singer-songwriter Nelson made popular with his music and attitude. Portraying a cipher of himself, the film observes the band's bus-driven tour across stadiums and honkeytonks while Nelson slowly falls in love with new guitarist Amy Irving. The problem? He's also married to Dyan Cannon. All of that romantic intrigue is secondary to the film's shaggy dog aesthetic and footage seemingly assembled from B-roll of the band horsing around and smoking pot on the bus. All in all, it's a wonderful and ramshackle portrait of aimless stardom and hangover sunrises.

6. The Seventh Code (2013) - It's still so disappointing that after about 2008 and "Tokyo Sonata", the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa have become increasingly tough to see commodities here in the states. Sure, they may get a token NYFF premier, but then they vanish to the heap of bit torrent sites when their import DVD's hit the overseas market. "The Seventh Code" is one such casualty, but oh so good for the way Kurosawa manages to cram so much genre into an hour long piece made as an Asian pop star vehicle. As the young girl abandoned in a Russian landscape after her one-night stand boyfriend deserts her and tries to go out about his spy-selling secrets mission, pop singer Atsuko Maeda is perfect as the wide-eyed scraggly dog constantly popping up to interrupt his affairs. Swerving from romance comedy to apocalyptic thriller with ease, "The Seventh Code" remains proof that Kurosawa can electrify no matter how thin the premise feels. It even makes room for a music video before the explosive finale.

5. My Night At Maud's (1969) - Coming of cinematic sensibility and lumped in with the French New Wave of the 50's and 60's, filmmaker Eric Rohmer always seemed to stand a bit outside of the group.... partly due to the decade he had on the others in the movement, but mostly because his films were stylistically simpler and thematically denser than his counterparts. I don't mean that as a slight against the others, but his are simply more delicate. A fine case in point is "My Night At Maud's", one of his six "Moral Tales" films completed over the course of a decade that made waves on both shores of the Atlantic. Eschewing the cinematic language tricks that defined the work of Godard, Truffaut and Eustache, Rohmer's tale even dispenses with the lovelorn cad of a male character, opting instead for Jean-Louis Trintignant's devout Catholic thinker who gets a beautiful woman (the titular Maud, played by Francoise Fabian) throwing herself at him, and all he can do is lament about the deeper things in his life. The conversation that Jean-Louis and Maud have in her apartment- after she ushers out her lover and Jean-Louis' friend who brought him to her apartment in the first place- is the throbbing heart of the film. Running in real time for approximately 25 minutes, their conversation is playful, intellectual, flirtatious. It's a one-night stand, but Rohmer doesn't make it feel cheap or dirty. Or, in the case of the French New Wave habits, something of a prerequisite conquest that encompasses most of the basest male elements. This is a film attuned to the spirit and humanity of love in all its intellectual messiness and ill-timed fortunes.

4. Dishonored (1931) - After watching "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story" and getting to interview filmmaker Alexandra Dean last year, I made it my mission to seek out as many Lamarr and Marlene Dietrich films as I could- both females stars who swayed the popular culture of film in its infancy and broke down barriers of intellect and sexuality like no other. In her collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich made a host of films that are alternatively lurid, wild, thrilling and thinly tied to that word known as genre. Their best partnership, I feel, was perhaps the one that gets the least amount of ink. That being "Dishonored". Essentially a spy thriller in which Dietrich is dispatched to gather intel on Russian soldier Victor McLaglen, the film is basically a series of tableaux as Doetrich completely owns each and every frame with her eyes and movements. It's stunning to see how far this film goes in mordant humor and delicate plot twists that drive towards a fatalistic denouement quite unlike any film dared by Hollywood. I recommend seeing all the films in this boxset, but "Dishonored" should be seen and savored for a partnership of artists pushing everything to the edges before there even were edges.

3. The State I Am In (2001) - Home. It's a concept rarely explored in Christian Petzold's filmic universe. He's often content to trace the tumultuous lives of his characters through high-rise glass windows and non-descript roadways around his beloved Germany. And when the idea is touched upon- be it the destructive flux of post-war Berlin in which Nina Hoss tries to re assimilate in "Phoenix" or the simmering bedrock of boredom and jealousy that erupts in "Jerichow"- the violence and deception that erupts from such a simple construct such as "home" becomes like a mythical creature hellbent on pushing everyone out into the open. Such is the case with "The State I Am In" (2000). Actually his fourth film but the first to be released internationally after a trio of made-for-TV products, the film is perhaps the best example of the scenario I've described above. Following a mother (Barbara Auer), father (Richy Muller) and 15 year old Jeanne (Julie Hummer), the film begins with Jeanne at a seaside resort where, although sullen and withdrawn, she befriends a local surfer boy named Heinrich (Bilge Bingul). With the machinations of a coming-of-age story set in motion, the rug is pulled out from underneath us when it's revealed the family is on the run. The nervy and jumpy father isn't just jumpy and nervy because his daughter may be falling in love with the type of boy all fathers fear, but because he and the mother are wanted for crimes against the state as part of their actions in a terrorist group years ago. In fact, young Jeanne has never known a normal life, which makes the abrupt tear away from her newfound love even more confusing and frustrating. The rest of "The State I Am In" details the furious tug of war between Jeanne's blossoming womanhood being stifled by her parent's compulsive need to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Filming in his usual brisk, clipped style that rarely tells more than it needs to, one gets the feeling this is as close to a spy-thriller Petzold will ever get. One scene in particular in which the family are stopped at a red light and believe the police to be closing in features a wordless series of edits that punctuates the silence of what it may feel like when one understands and even acknowledges the inevitable is situated in front of them. Petzold has again crafted a mysterious and intriguing exploration of a life in constant flux.

2. Union Station (1950) - One of my favorite chase scenes in all of cinema resides in William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). No, it's not the very muscular and chaotically choreographed car chase under the subway system, but a game of cat-and-mouse-hide-and-seek that pits Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his fleet-footed attempt in keeping up with his target (Fernando Rey) on the hectic streets and (eventual) busy New York subway system. It's a masterclass set-piece of editing and sound that strikes at the heart of two people trying to out duel each other. So imagine how crestfallen I was- and alternatively thrilled- while watching Rudolph Mate's "Union Station" (1950) a few months ago when the same type of criminal versus cop chess appeared in this aces crime thriller. I may need to go back and see if Friedkin lip services Mate's film in any way, but "The French Connection" is undeniably indebted to "Union Station's" crisp, boldly edited chase scene that features a cop following a suspected criminal around and about, ending up on a subway car where the tables are suddenly turned. In fact, pretty much all of Mate's masterpiece is a brilliant study of bodies in motion and the logistics of men standing, watching, waiting.... something that's been the machismo hallmark of current directors such as Michael Mann and Johnny To for decades now. One of those men standing and watching is William Holden, the cop of the film's train station title who's drawn into a web of tension when a group of kidnapping suspects use his train terminal to do their extortion and bidding. Partnering with the New York police, Holden initially helps them identify the criminals (with the help of beautiful Nancy Olsen), and from that point on, "Union Station" realizes several sequences of paranoid stake-outs, double crosses and electric action scenes that sets the film apart from the rudimentary film noir efforts the film is often associated with. Coming at the beginning of the 50's when noir was beginning to metastasize in other things (i.e. the hard boiled cynicism of Robert Aldrich and Cold War metaphors), "Union Station" is so thrilling for its simplicity and its attention to form. None of this is surprising since the director, Mate, came from the ranks of celebrated Hollywood cinematographers (and had already helmed two highly regarded noir classics "D.O.A." in 1949 and "The Dark Past" in 1948). What is surprising, however, is that "Union Station" is a largely forgotten relic of the noir wave that deserves its place in the pantheon of hard boiled cinema.

1. Model Shop (1969) - One of the best films of the 60's (and current recipient of a mint Blu-ray treatment by Twilight Time), Jacques Demy's roving Los Angeles character study about a layabout as he cruises around the city trying to collect money from friends is, ultimately, about so much more than that. The man, played by a somewhat vapid Gary Lockwood, soon turns his frustrated attention to a beautiful "model shop" model (Anouk Aimee) he runs into and the film becomes a somewhat tender, momentary exchange of ideas and feelings between the two. It's also an amazing illustration of Los Angeles in the 60's. From the opening shot that doesn't just establish the quaintly ramshackle abode of Lockwood, but starts at one house next to an oil pump and then slowly tracks down the entire beach-side street eventually pivoting to its main location, Demy is hell bent on essaying the sparkling terrain of- as one character says- the "baroque geometry" of all Los Angeles. Receiving some resuscitated screenings earlier this year around the country as an obvious influence on Tarantino's latest project, "Model Shop" is an extraordinary piece of cinema that deserves every bit of reclamation. And that ending. Gah! Love it so much.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Very Vinyl: My Favorite Music of 2019




Definitely growing stronger as it goes along (ending with the haunting cosmic jazz of the song featured above), Bon Iver's "I,I" isn't an extremely welcoming project on first listen. But, like all of his layered songs, Justin Vernon's unique ability isn't in arranging tidy lyrics inside your head. His music etches little specks of melody in your soul, accumulating into a warm explosion as the songs bleed and morph against each other. I've listened to this album more than anything else this year. Just magical.




With "The Eraser" and now "Anima", Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has crafted two individualistic albums that feel, at once, apart of the Radiohead soundscape and wholly different. Perhaps its Yorke's reliance on more electronic beats (rather than Greenwood's thumping guitar), and "Anima" pushes his propulsive experimentation to dizzying heights.




Not only did we get a new The Natioanl album this year, but a stellar black and white short film (starring Alicia Vikander) that dispenses all the heartache, joy and crushing humanity that spills out through every lyric of their songs. I hope this band continues to make music for decades.




Emerging on the scene only a few years ago, New York rock band Big Thief have a legitimate claim to band of the year. releasing not one but two splendid albums. Hailed by fellow artists like Phoebe Bridgers as something amazing to see live, Big Thief are poised to be the indie darlings for years to come.




A commentator on YouTube said that the next decade belongs to Weyes Blood. I wholeheartedly agree. Natalie Mering has been making music for more than 8 years, but with "Titanic Rising", her cosmic pop sound combining church music, 70's Linda Ronstadt and lilting melodies culminated in a near perfect confection of mood and energy.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Moral Relationships: Eric Rohmer's "My Night At Maud's"

Coming of cinematic sensibility and lumped in with the French New Wave of the 50's and 60's, filmmaker Eric Rohmer always seemed to stand a bit outside of the group.... partly due to the decade he had on the others in the movement, but mostly because his films were stylistically simpler and thematically denser than his counterparts. I don't mean that as a slight against the others, but his are simply more delicate. A fine case in point is "My Night At Maud's", one of his six "Moral Tales" films completed over the course of a decade that made waves on both shores of the Atlantic.

Eschewing the cinematic language tricks that defined the work of Godard, Truffaut and Eustache, Rohmer's tale even dispenses with the lovelorn cad of a male character, opting instead for Jean-Louis Trintignant's devout Catholic thinker who gets a beautiful woman (the titular Maud, played by Francoise Fabian) throwing herself at him, and all he can do is lament about the deeper things in his life. The conversation that Jean-Louis and Maud have in her apartment- after she ushers out her lover and Jean-Louis' friend who brought him to her apartment in the first place- is the throbbing heart of the film. Running in real time for approximately 25 minutes, their conversation is playful, intellectual, flirtatious... and one that does end with both of them in bed together. It's a one-night stand, but Rohmer doesn't make it feel cheap or dirty. Or, in the case of the French New Wave habits, something of a prerequisite conquest that encompasses most of the basest male elements.

Entering Jean-Louis' life around the same time is Francoise, a young blonde he spies in church one night and then continually runs into around town as she zips to and fro on her bicycle. After leaving Maud's, he begins a relationship with her that will transform into a stunning years later coda that trembles with anticipation and peaceful resolve as the three meet on French beach. Each one has gone their disparate ways in life, and Rohmer handles the run-in with complete care.

"My Night At Maud's" is aptly titled because, like so many moments in life, the short time Maud and Jean-Louis spent together seemed to define them for the rest of their lives, like an intersection that yields both ways and allows the driver to swerve whichever direction they want. And of his Six Moral tales, the film is tender not only for the attention to body language, but the refusal to treat his men and woman as anything other than on-screen playthings.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

On "The Irishman"

With his previous film "Silence" (2016) and now "The Irishman", Scorsese has certainly entered his pensive period and, as a filmmaker whose lifelong investments have been people struggling with the cause and effect of inner turmoil (both spiritually and non), "The Irishman" may be his crowning reflection on the matter. As a sweeping tapestry of mid-century gangsterism and unionist history, it's a completely enveloping recreation of the stalwart loud mouths (Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa) and powerfully quiet sea changers (Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino) who had their fingers on the pulse. And as a character study of one man (Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran) along for the turbulent and violent ride, it's a meditative masterpiece that ends on such a somber, devastating image that even after 3 and a half hours, I was still stunned it was over.

Bringing together his most star-studded ensemble yet, part of the film's magnificent poise about guilt-ridden existence long after the dust has settled lies in the etched faces of icons Pacino, DeNiro and Pesci. It succeeds not only in their wondrous interpretation of Steve Xaillan's screenplay, but in the very history of their iconic status. In a climactic scene between Pacino and DeNiro (which has been foretold as truth by one party and unilaterally denied by about every other camp in the world), Scorsese makes sure to slow things down to a crawl.... focusing on eyes, bodies and sideways glances that exudes serene betrayal at every moment. I don't imagine it working quite so brilliantly with any other actors in the world.


However, though the underlying emotions of the film speak loudest, "The Irishman" is, after all, a Scorsese gangster picture where the violence is swift and damning and the camera a secondary floating character to the action of men going about their routine business of killing. Bringing together disparate technical forays of his previous films (tracking shots, freeze frame light bulb clicks, text on the screen that plays with the existence of time), it's also an effort that feels at home in its place of a canon started back in the 70's with "Mean Streets" in which masculinity, religion, self esteem and consequences are wound up tight in a universe spun from the creative Scorsese mind. The only difference is that now, these men are left sitting alone, abandoned by everyone, wondering if their lives were worth the fuss. If it can't be answered now, at least part of the unique joy in cinema has been watching Scorsese and his crew of actors beg the question.