Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Last Few Films I've Seen, November edition

1.. Los Punks: We Are All We Have (2015)- Documentary about the grassroots underground latino punk scene in Los Angeles. Could have been great, but it gets stuck in boring profiles and brain-fried people sloshing about.

2. Black Rose Mansion (1969)- The always interesting Kinji Fukusaku attempts film noir with a cabaret singer who seems to attract and destroy every man she meets. Psychedelic 60's Japanese stuff. Way cool.

3. Doctor Strange (2016)- Walked out halfway through. I just can't take these CGI superhero films anymore.

4. The Cut (2014)- Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin's ode to Elia Kazan with a sprawling exploration of one man's survival from the Armenian genocide and his propulsive search for his missing twin daughters. Sad, humane and infuriating.

5. No Blade of Grass (1970)- Surprisingly brutal Cornel Wilde apocalypse film that doesn't shy away from the rape of a young girl, the main character murdering when needed and a pretty hopeless trek across a collapsing society. Not on DVD but can be found on the world wide web if you look hard enough.

6. Salute (1929)- Working my way through all of John Ford's films and this one, so far, is the worst. The worst, Jerry! The Worst!

7. Audrey and Daisy (2016)- Like "The Hunting Ground", this Netflix documentary casts an infuriating light on teen sex assault and the constant barriers, both emotionally and bureaucratically, that exist in dealing with the problem.

8. The Sea of Trees (2016)- Gus Van Sant's mediocre tale about a man (Matthew McCoughnay) trying to end his life in the infamous Japanese 'death forest' is so rote and predictable that not only did the 'twist' ring hollow, but it managed to end good 'ol Matt's string of trenchant performances.

9. Loving (2016)- One refreshing theme from 2016 involved directors working proficiently. Not only did Pablo Larrain have two films open within a few weeks of each other, but American filmmaker Jeff Nichols started the year with "Midnight Special" and ended it with "Loving". While the former is a very good film, it doesn't compare to the nuance and sublimeness of "Loving". Ripping its story from the civil rights headlines- in which an inter racial couple bucked the Jim Crow ways and got married in late 1950's North Carolina- "Loving" contains an emotional force precipitated by lead actors Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Negga especially. Rightly deserving an Oscar nomination this year, her mixture of country humility and steely reserve shines through her eyes and crimped face in every single scene. Nichols also does the unthinkable and crafts a legal thriller (as their case eventually winds its way to the Supreme Court) that wisely avoids stepping foot inside a courtroom, maintaining its humane gaze on the couple's reactions and their unending wish to simply 'exist' as man and wife.

10. Writhing Tongue (1980)- Yoshitaro Nomura brings his elegant sense of procedural to the medical melodrama (complete with day and time stamps as the film progresses) with this odd but moving tale about a young girl's journey with a paralyzing illness. Almost punishing in the lengths it goes to portray her endless days in the hospital and even more honest in the way Nomura slowly tightens his gaze on the helpless parents (Tsunehiko Watase and Yukio Toake) as they watch their little girl suffer, "Writhing Tongue" ultimately becomes yet another stirring and competent entry in Nomura's largely unrecognized work here in the States that demands more of an audience. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.20

Arrival

After his last few films (and really since "Polytechnique" which is a shame so few people have seen), filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is, quite simply, working a higher level than most around him. With "Arrival", his plume of visual poetry becomes married with a heartbreaking piece of human fiction that gives to birth to a staggering science fiction film that left me breathless and gasping for my senses. Reaching far beyond the simple establishing premise of aliens visiting Earth and our clumsy, inconsequential methods of communication with them, "Arrival" is a riveting exploration of memory, language and compromise. As the linguist who unlocks the secret, Amy Adams delivers a wonderful performance, allowing herself no show-off moments and almost losing herself in the murky blacks and blues of Villeneuve's vision (shot by DP Bradford Young) before emerging as one of the year's strongest characters on screen. It's been said that "Arrival", whose screenplay is based on a story by Ted Chiang, is the closest we have to Tarkovsky-esque science fiction (or Russian sci-fi mind melts in general) and I tend to agree. Beautifully rendered in every moment and gesture, "Arrival" ranks as one of the most magisterial films of the year.




The Love Witch

A star is born in actress Samantha Robinson, the perfect embodiment of carnal treachery... sculptured cheekbones and all.  Full review on Dallas Film Now


The Edge of Seventeen

Equal parts formulaic and refreshing, there's certainly an honesty to Kelly Fremon Craig's debut that echos back to the 80's teen film in which everyone is either awkward or popular and the pitfalls of adolescence that erupt on either side. Led by Hailee Steinfeld in a performance that only shows how terrific a career she has ahead of her (as if "True Grit" didn't already solidify that), "The Edge of Seventeen" navigates in a precise and humorous manner, ably evoking those pimple-induced days of high school and the swirl of emotions that comes with it. Even though Steinfeld portrays a girl whose way-too-beautiful-to-be-this-awkward (aka the formulaic part), the film more than makes up for it in unexpected and moving ways.


Elle

Isabelle Huppert imbues the film with a perverse girl-power logic, seemingly more comfortable buying pepper spray and sharp objects than groceries. And I wouldn't want it any other way.  Full review can be read at Dallas Film Now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Musical Interlude




RIP Leonard Cohen.







One of the single most moving soundtrack themes ever composed.





Friday, November 04, 2016

On "The Handmaiden"

Being unfamiliar with the novel, entitled "Fingersmith", that Park Chan Wook's "The Handmaiden" is based upon, I can't ascertain just how much of its eroticism and psychological deviancy is transposed to the screen. If it's half as good as Wook's adaptation, then I can't imagine why it didn't reach soft-core-female-thriller status like E.L. James (the "Fifty Shades of Gray" series) or Paula Hawkins ("The Girl on the Train"). Regardless, the current film itself is not only one of the best films of the year, but a masterstroke of filmmaking by Wook whose no stranger to shocking, abrupt narratives that turn on a dime and whose undercurrent of broiling social commentary remain hidden just enough to become subtext.


The subtext here is the uneasy relationship between people of Korean and Japanese descent and how they use the barriers of language and identity to leave behind the past. When one character wants to hide something snarky or condescending to another, they speak in one of the languages the other cannot understand. And Wook wisely claims up front that one set of dialogue will be subtitled in yellow while the other is in white. Matching this cultural war of words, the deviant and shocking aspect comes in the form of a steamy, convoluted relationship that forms between Korean handmaiden Sookee (Kim Tae-ree) and Japanese Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Initially devised as an elaborate scheme to force Lady Hideko to marry a swindler named Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and steal her large fortune, of course, things don't go as planned and Sookee finds herself torn between her corrupt assignment and a growing attraction to her Lady.

"The Handmaiden's" formal brilliance is matched only by its scathing wit in the way it feverishly peels back layers of deception and perspective. And it just wouldn't be a Park Chan Wook film without a dash of violence, revenge and shifting alliance that constantly jerks the expectant rug out from underneath our careful toes. A rope hanging from a tree one moment becomes a casual visual joke in another. A set of large beads on a rope found in the drawer of Lady Hideko in the beginning become a device of supreme pleasure at the film's end. And each character ends up in a drastically different place than where they started out, both in emotional variance and cultural identity. It'd be quaint to call the film a thriller, but it so succinctly turns the screws on the viewer that it reminds one of the impending dread and malaise of "Oldboy"... with a bit of lesbianism thrown in for good mix.

And "Oldboy" is the voice in which "The Handmaiden" resembles the most after Wook's more recent efforts like "Thirst" and "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK". Yet, instead of retreading the past, "The Handmaiden" feels vigorous and fresh, like a Merchant-Ivory production washed through the lens of David Cronenberg. And by the time Lady Hideko cuts her hand with a knife to feign bodily harm elsewhere, its pretty clear body horror can invade even the most uptight sectors of Japanese society. It's just yet another deception in a film built around them.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Shocktober '16 #3

Nightmare Detective


Fashioning a narrative around dream logic allows one to play by their own rules, inserting visuals and modes of storytelling that are counter-intuitive and surreal. So is the case of Shinya Tsukamato's "Nightmare Detective" in which a killer communicates with (and kills) people in their dreams. The ultimate J-horror spin on "Nightmare on Elm Street", the drawback of this unique dream logic is that the portions of the film that take place outside the dream setpieces rarely make much better sense. Filmed on DV and featuring the very basic paradigms of J-horror filmmaking (i.e. herky jerky cinematography and a confused backstory of childhood trauma), "Nightmare Detective" starts out promisingly before deteriorating into a jumbled mess.


Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell


"Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" is a delirious carousel of fantasy/horror film tropes. Touching on oozing slime, vampirism, alien invasion and the simple deceptive tragedies the human race perpetrates upon one another, it also takes a stance against the Vietnam War! After a plane crash, a group of survivors has to deal with all of this in a pop colored universe of blood red skies, dancing camera filters and sandy dunes. It can be eye-rollingly bad at times and indicative of the easy potswings of late 60's Japanese cinema, but its fun and ends on a perfectly great image.


The Theatre Bizarre


The good thing about anthology films is each new episode can swerve in a different direction, exploring the depths of humor, drama, surrealism or grotesqueness. The great thing about anthology films is the length of each episode. If it sucks, it'll be over soon. This template is followed in "The Theatre Bizarre" in which 6 short films dart between the above mentioned motifs and offer a bevy of ideas and emotions. Featuring somewhat famous directors (Richard Stanley and Buddy Giovinazzo) mixed with relatively unknowns, the stories are just as varied. The best, including one called "Vision Stains" in which a killer finds a way to transfer the victim's final sights into her own eyes, explores an idea that could be extended to feature length form with perverse intelligence. The worst- including the bumper episode with Udo Kier as some sort of mannequin controlling the stories, probably belong in 20 minute versions only. I can say this film is at least better than recent anthologies like the disingenuous "Southbound" or lackluster "ABC's of Death". 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Shocktober '16 #2

Witching and Bitching


Pretty typical Alex de la Iglesias hyper-confection of comedy, horror and action. It's never meant to take itself seriously and, judging by the 4-5 other Iglesias films I've seen, he fancies himself a sort of Spanish John Waters. There are a few scares in this heist-film-turned horror when a group of bank robbers (with one of the men's young son in tow) run into a coven of witches intent on eating them. Compared to "Day of the Beast", this one is definitely more interested in the wham-bam aesthetic.



Return of the Evil Dead



In the second film of four "Blind Dead" entries, more isn't better. In fact, after the quasi-fun of seeing the first 'skeletor' Knights Templar exacting revenge from the grave, "Return of the Evil Dead" is pretty lackluster in every facet this time around. I think the same footage of the undead rising from their graves is used here, which reveals alot of the motivation and creativity involved.


Livid


After the unmitigated success of their international shocker, "Inside" (2007), which still ranks as one of the best horror films of the last 25 years for me, the sky was the limit for French filmmaking duo Julian Maury and Alexndre Bustillo. "Livid" is that follow-up and while it's not the violent masterpiece of their debut effort, it is a spellbinding exercise whose scattershot ellipses to black and perfectly attuned atmosphere feel like someone breathlessly whispering a gothic fairy tale into your ear. It's also the home-invasion-turned-horror-house that Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" so desperately wanted to be. It's calm mixture of gory shock, palpable dread and wisps of the fantastic all add up to a hugely satisfying and underrated horror flick, barely released here in the States and still only available on a Region 2 DVD. Seek this one out.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.19

Deepwater Horizon

With two disaster films this fall (the other being "Patriot's Day", which deals with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing), Peter Berg is quickly becoming this generation's Irwin Allen. Before "Deepwater Horizon" devolves into mindless pyrotechnics and fireballs, it maintains quite a masterful tone of intelligence and even a lean procedural tilt as it builds up to the reasons for the BP oil rig disaster in 2010... all of which means I much appreciated its first half infinitely more than the second when it becomes forced to uphold its blockbuster trappings and create superheroes out of its ordinary 'Mericans. Yet, despite its faults, the film slightly won me over in its clear-eyed explanations for the faulty science and corporate inefficiency (personified by John Malkovich as a BP executive so smarmy, he can't even remember to hold his cajun accent throughout) that ultimately doomed the working class on board the mechanical giant. Bad accents notwithstanding, "Deepwater Horizon" is probably Berg's best film since "Friday Night Lights".


Denial

Not only does Mick Jackson's drama effectively stand up as a courtroom thriller, but it hones in on an especially nasty subsection of World War II- that being the revisionist (and utterly racist) view that the Holocaust didn't happen. Top performances from Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall aside, "Denial's" real ace-in-the-hole is Tom Wilkinson who, by this point in his career, does this type of sturdy, solemn turn with ease, yet here he mines a resonance and gravity in the role that should earn him an Oscar nomination. Rooted in fact and based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt (who herself went through this process), "Denial" weaves together a variety of ideas about the forensic proof of the Holocaust, yet its ultimate message is the one that cannot be proven, which is to say the scars on so many people who experienced it.


Demon

Marcin Wrona's Polish language film begs the question: who's really possessed? The groom, seemingly inhabited by the spirit of a dead girl whose bones he uncovers or the numerous wedding goers, lubricated by drink and dance and whose bodies twist and contort in the same way as the groom?

Full review on Dallas Film Now


Limo Ride

A country-fried bender to end all benders. Full review on Dallas Film Now