Saturday, November 21, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, November edition

1. Love (2015)- A sobering elegy about the disastrous decisions made just before and after sex. Close to Noe's masterpiece, "Irreversible".  Full review on Dallas Film Now.

2. Polytechnique (2009)- Denis Villenevue's black and white dramatic retelling of the 1989 Montreal Tech school massacre is austere and shocking, but most surprising is the way it ends on a somewhat uplifting note that defies the misogynistic reasons for the shooter's rampage. Weaving back and forth in time to follow several students before and after the incident, "Polytechnique" was made just before Villenevue began to score in Hollywood with "Prisoners", "Enemy" and now "Sicario" and its worth tracking down. Like these other films mentioned, it delves into aspects of damaged psychology that, ultimately, ends on a pitch perfect resonance and proves one of the victims (played wonderfully by Karine Vanesse) chooses not to be defined by the tragedy itself but the decisions she makes with her life after the violence.

3. Heaven Knows What (2015)- Belonging up there with "White Star" and "Christiane F.", Josh and Benny Safdie's heroin-junkie drama is filled to the brim with hollow eyed people and a pervasive atmosphere of desperation that (I only imagine) must encompass this lifestyle. Based on the memoir and starring the ex-junkie herself Arielle Holmes, "Heaven Knows What" starts on a histrionic note and never quite lets up after that. It's strong cinema though and lingers in your mind.

4. Armor of Light (2015)- Documentary on two hot button topics (gun control and religious rhetoric) that never quite fully develops into a cohesive whole. Reviewed on Dallas Film Now.

5. Marfa Girl (2014)- Larry Clark's latest film tones down the risque teenage sex a bit, but it's no less incisive into what makes his awkward protagonists click beyond smoking pot and hanging out. I suppose I should quit looking for substance in his films. But the greatest omission "Marfa Girl" makes is completely alienating the wondrous West Texas landscape of Marfa in favor of shabby home interiors and concrete skate parks. His hippy characters nip at the edges of the progressive lifestyles there yet it fails to leave an indelible impression.

6. Dark Places (2015)- After the success of "Gone Girl", the scramble to 'cinematize' more Gillian Flynn novels ensued and this was the next. Not in a position to judge its relevance to the novel, the film itself is a hodge-podge of thriller aspects that feels overwrought. Also, the lead character played by Charlize Theron, tries to come off as some sort of moody, empowered 'everywoman' but the nuance isn't realized.

 7. The Wicked Go To Hell (1955)- Robert Hossein's directorial debut is a cool blend of prison escape drama and crime exploits once the two escapees hole up with a beautiful hostage in her seaside home. Like a dry run for his later film "Falling Point", Hossein is obviously enamored by the languid darkness that hides just beneath the pleasant surface as the beach itself, eventually, literally swallows the men whole.

8. Truth (2015)- The problem with James Vanderbilt's journalism drama about 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and anchor Dan Rather's flawed reporting on W. Bush's war record isn't the backlash it's received since, but its utter sense of self importance. Every scene between Rather (Robert Redford) and reporter Topher Grace is monumentally strained. The usually wonderful Cate Blanchett acts as if the entire effort is a noble act of self sacrifice. Director Vanderbilt telegraphs every emotion and scene with sledgehammer authority. A huge disappointment.

9. Fedora (1978)- Billy Wilder's swan song is a terrific inversion of the noir genre.... the scandalous Hollywood darkside drama.... and one of William Holden's finest performances as the private dick caught in the middle.

10. Lan Yu (2001)- Working my way through most of Stanley Kwan's films. I can see why he never gained major international acclaim and overshadowed by the more prolific Wong Kar Wai, but "Lan Yu" (and even more specifically "Everlasting Regret") are interesting explorations of identity and shifting cultural paradigms that he probably should have gotten more notice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Francesco Rosi Files: La Sfida

Two of my favorite films from the 1970's- Robert Mulligan's "The Nickel Ride" and John G. Avildsen's "Save the Tiger"- contain a similar theme about the dogged determinism of a business entrepreneur to keep his business afloat. They're exhaustive, fluid films that feature stressful performances by Jason Miller and Jack Lemmon, respectively, and certainly accentuate the oncoming tide of later 70's films that wallow in the American recession and "New Brat" school of thought. And even though both men in these films straddle the line between moral and decent business practice, they signify upright men trying to maintain control of their visions, regardless of the legality of their trade.

A straight line can be drawn back to Francesco Rosi's 1958 "La Sfida" (aka "The Challenge"). Not only does it enable the simple Italian Neorealist themes of a lowly person desperately trying to overcome a singular hurdle, but it feels like a direct interloper to the films of Coppola, Scorsese and the above mentioned pair in its scope and intimate ambition. Sarring Jose Suarez as Vito, "La Sfida" observes his growth from the town hustler to fruit and vegetable mogul in short order. Setting up trucking routes, organizing his men to make deliveries and, eventually coming into conflict with the local crime boss, Vito seems to have it all figured out. Things get even better when he marries young Assunta (Rosanna Schiaffino). And, like all great Italian films, their wedding day becomes a lengthy affair that not only takes up a good portion of the film's final half, but morphs into a cerebral exercise of power and control as Vito's enemies decide to attack his interests.

"La Sfida" was Rosi's first solo directorial effort after co-directing an anthology film in 1952 and assisting actor Vittorio Gassman with his project entitled "Kean" (which isn't a bad film, but ultimately a comedic 'audience pleaser' that looks and feels like nothing else Rosi would do). Stunning in its assured measures and complex in the way it manages to highlight the almost bureaucratic steps ambitious Vito has to take to build his hard-pressed empire, "La Sfida" is really a film about the in-between moments of Italian Cosa Nostra culture and the uncontrollable fits and starts of creating something out of nothing. Like the long walks Jason Miller takes around the dilapidated warehouse district of Los Angeles or the sweaty, out-of-breath decisions Jack Lemmon has to make on the fly, "La Sfida" raises a strong case that the effort is hardly worth the pensive payoffs. But, Vito does it anyway. Partly out of neighborhood pride, but mostly because he enjoys the nice cars and pampering beautiful Assunta, "La Sfida" follows his trek through the good and bad. If it's ironic that he initially gave up peddling cigarettes for the more expensive and healthy produce shipping, "La Sfida" shows no favoritism. The end result is the same. And like the rest of Rosi's career, his anti-hero rarely walks away unscathed, beaten either by the system or his own ambitions. "The Challenge" could be the title of any later Rosi work, and I imagine he liked it that way.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Hacktober #3

Crimson Peak

The best film I've seen in this month of October horror movie binging, "Crimson Peak" is a Gothic romance horror couched brilliantly against del Toro's demented landscape of ominous ghosts, histrionic emotions and Escher-like collapsing mansions. That pale-skinned Mia Waskowski is at the center of the madness only makes it more bittersweet as she's the perfect innocent reflection of the malevolent gestures of Jessica Chastain. Even though its antique idea of a murderous/incestuous couple is anchored in cliche trappings of 20th century tragedy, the film's wonderful visuals, art design that seems to be lacquered down to the inch and some truly scary images make this film one of del Toro's most fully realized works.

The Nightmare

It's a bit disingenuous to label Rodney Ascher's "The Nightmare" a documentary on sleep paralysis since it not only dispenses with any critical examination of the topic, but resolutely refuses to do anything beyond vividly fictionalizing the subject. If you want any explanation on the idea, listen to Coast To Coast AM or look elsewhere. Regardless of that, the "documentary" does contain its share of scary imagery and hammers home the fact that there are so many unexplained phenomenon out there.


From the screwed-up mind that brought us "Calvaire" a few years back, Belgium filmmaker Fabrice du Walz returns with more provocative subject matter, updating the 1940's "Lonely Hearts Killer" case to modern times as Lola Duenas and Laurent Lucas are the murderous couple who pass themselves off as brother and sister and systematically kill the women he shacks up with. Pieces of fetishism and Duenas carefully unhinged performance strike the right balance of morbid and strange and du Walz again proves his blunt and dirty gaze during the act of murder are some of the more bone-chilling realizations out there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hacktober #2

We Are Still Here

Deceptively simple but effectively creepy, Ted Geoghegan's haunted house horror relies on old tales and careful framing to elicit its jumps and thrills. It does follow some inane genre techniques (i.e. the now infamous Ebert coined BADF theory) but its heart and mind feel like they're in the right place.

Stephen King's It

Even though millions of people suffer from coulrophobia, there's still plenty of other things to really freak someone out in "Stephen King's It". I'm honestly not sure how I managed to avoid this miniseries based on King's 1986 novel, but it's well worth the wait. Marrying his two beloved thematic tendencies- one being childhood reverie of growing up during the 1960's and the second being his innate ability to terrify- King (and director Tommy Lee Wallace) have delivered a solid visual translation. The idea of a malevolent being taking the form of a clown and using a quiet New England town as his 30 year feeding ground is a spellbinding idea, and while parts of the movie are deadened by their television soap opera bearings, it more often than not succeeds. And, even more impressive is the basic idea about seven young friends suffering from psychological horror and then reuniting 30 years later to deal with them together. Those sections of the film alone would be enough to satisfy a full movie. But the real star here is Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.... a character that's alternately full of cheap one liners and sublimely nightmarish. Alongside Wes Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise, these are two primo efforts about the hellish reaches of our subconscious and the mind-bending ways in which reality and fantasy often overlap.

Dust Devil

Cult director Richard Stanley isn't really all that interested in making an outright horror film. Most of his stuff is a casserole of genres, and "Dust Devil" is a unique horror western with some South African mysticism tossed in. Besides its strong visual style, I can sense he was reaching for a franchise here as a shape-shifting devil runs amok on the desert highlands and local police try to decipher the grisly crime scene images. It's not always successful and suffers from the sorta-bad-early-90's costume theatrics, but its different.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.8

Steve Jobs

As a straight biography of the man, Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" is woefully neglect. As a pulsating backstage drama play to some of the most influential electronics products of the past half century- complete with conniving secondary characters, tainted relationships, high tension, and some serious daddy/daughter issues- it's a masterpiece. And honestly, how many more straight biopics do we really need? By capturing all the promotional hysteria and personal conflicts in three distinct realms of Steve Jobs' influential life (1984, 1988 and 1998), the film tightens its focus on the almost maniacal side of Jobs. Unrelenting in his purpose, unable to glorify anyone else but himself and yet still slicing up shimmers of humanity and emotional grandeur within him, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have crafted a film that zings with intelligence while maintaining a three-dimensional sense of the man. One may not like Jobs (brought to life by an Oscar worthy performance by Michael Fassbender), but it's a film that demands our attention and dares to steer away from the obvious inventions of the mind and instead examine the mechanism of power, regret, ownership and forgiveness.

The Walk

What could be more invigorating and informative than James Marsh's 2008 documentary "Man On Wire" about the tightrope walk of French performance artist Philippe Petit? Not much. So it seems a bit reductive (and borderline insulting) when Robert Zemeckis takes A-list actor Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is usually quite good, and dresses him up in faux 70's clothes and lets him run wild with an awful French accent in retelling the same events. Shrouded in 3D imagery and green screen theatrics, even the final third of the film which deals with the vertigo inducing walk between the Twin Towers, falls flat as if the film has morphed into some sort of Disney-like drama fun for the whole family. Terrible.

Field Niggas

Khalik Allah's "Field Niggas" was one of the last films to play at Dallas VideoFest last weekend, given a late Sunday night time slot because, frankly, not many people would probably know what to do with it. Sheer visual poetry in every sense of the word, Allah's mesmerizing hour long film would make a terrific art exhibit as well. Following the aimless, nocturnal denizens of homeless and scattered people on the streets of New York City, Allah plays with sound and image. Sometimes the people on-screen are the ones talking, but more often than not, its just the voices of the night overlapped onto the brightly saturated faces of those who happen to be in front of the camera. Holding steadfast on their scarred, weary and disquieted bodies, "Field Niggas" is a lament for those who don't have a voice, wandering the rainy night and rambling about police brutality, life on the streets and the daily grind of survival.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Christian Petzold, Part 2: The Mainstream (Sort of)

Released in 2007, "Yella" was the first real Petzold film to see a larger than limited release both here and in the U.K. And by that I mean outside of film festivals and into the elitist paying public of the 300 or so "art-house" theaters around the country. Again starring muse Nina Hoss, "Yella" is a frigid, tempered effort that begins with a woman being stalked by her ex husband and ends just as morosely. In fact, the title of Petzold's previous film, "Ghosts", is probably the more apt title here as Yella and her co-stars are moribund in some sort of steel and glass purgatory... a world where everyone's hotel room doors are inexplicably left ajar for anyone else to walk inside and the antiseptic offices where many of the inhabitants square off are sealed from the exterior sights, sounds and smells. It's an extremely interior and hermetic film, both physically and emotionally. See, Yella (Hoss) narrowly escapes the suicide attempt by this unhinged ex-husband when he drives his car off the road with her in it. Landing in water, Yella awakens on the water's edge and stalks off, seemingly unfazed, towards the new job awaiting her in a nearby town. Once that opportunity crumbles, new connections are made with Phillipp (Devid Striesow) and Yella's whip smart attributes to quickly size up accounting balance sheets comes in extremely handy for him, who happens to make his living bailing out fiscally unwise companies and turning their assets to his benefit. But all is not as it seems as Yella's ex-husband (also unconscious next to her when she awoke on dry land) begins to appear and disappear in her new life and odd sounds randomly pierce her fragile state.

"Yella" plays by its own dream logic for good reason. Why does she never remove the same red shirt and gray dress for the duration of the film? Why does no one seem to notice her immobile fits when she breaks a glass on the desk next to her? How does her ghostly ex suddenly appear next to her one moment when he seemingly wandered right past her the second before? Again fixated by economic mobility or the lack thereof, "Yella" is a tight yet unsettling psychological drama that bears all of Petzold's thematic stamps, especially his fascination with a loner couple awash in the German countryside that links the larger cities. But the real synonymous factor is the wide-eyed, graceful performance of Nina Hoss who feels as if she's just hitting her stride under Petzold's dour, nihilistic moods. And as the film winds to its somewhat expected but still striking finale, that mood prevails. And Petzold's vision doesn't even allow his characters to dream good thoughts.

Just as Petzold's vision on-screen became more confident and tantalizing, for the first time in his career, these visions were given confidence by numerous eyes around the globe as well. His next film, "Jerichow" (2008) even got a proper art-house release and did favorably well financially and even better critically. Loosely echoing the film noir classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice", Petzold dispenses with the potboiler atmosphere of the original, which is something the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange dramatically amps up, creating a a wild and sweat-filled lust-noir that verges on camp. But in "Jerichow", everything is sedate and highly plausible. Even as the wife (Hoss) and her new workmate/lover Thomas (Benno Furmann again) engage in secret dalliances behind the back of her husband and his boss Ali (Hilmi Sozer), the canvas of blame is democratic. And, yet, when the duo plot to kill the husband, Petzold has built up such a shifting allegiance of paranoia and dead-end decisions that we almost don't blame the couple for conspiring to commit murder. Further still, the revelations in the final moments from Ali complete a triangle of casual acceptance that again shifts our preconceptions about the film noir genre itself and push "Jerichow" into a human drama more than a token genre name.

Reflecting back on it now, and having watched it again in the last few months after my initial theatrical viewing seven years ago, "Jerichow" strikes me as the summation of Petzold's evolving work. It's a film that, like the worn out cowboy boots that Nina Hoss dons beneath her lilting flowery dresses, consistently upends our expectations and presupposes there are invisible boundaries between 'good' and 'bad'. In "Jerichow", everyone is a shade of both these identifiers and their actions against each other are organic reactions to their situations. It's a marvelous tightrope walk of a film.

After a short stint in TV work again (which will be covered in the third and final installment here), it was four years before Petzold would grace the big screen again. Released in the fall of 2012 after a hearty film festival circuit tour, "Barbara" continues Petzold's fascination with stasis. Again placing Nina Hoss at the center of the drama, she plays a Berlin doctor ostracized to the East German country after an unknown incident with the authorities. Living out her days in solitude and looking forward only to the clandestine meetings with her West German lover (who promises to help her defect), Barbara slowly finds her self worth in this rural community. But at a cost. Continually monitored by German authority figure Klaus (Rainer Bock) and completely unsure of the genuineness exuded by fellow doctor Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), Hoss gives her best performance to date for Petzold. Virtually holding her breath in many scenes, unwilling to compromise her inner thoughts or show weakness to a society virtually holding her hostage, she gives the film a powerfully mute force with her eyes and constricted body movement. If there were justice, she would have gotten an Oscar nomination that year.

The first film by Petzold to reflect openly on a specific time in Germany's past, "Barbara" feels like a razor sharp exploration of this paranoia and self delusion. In one particular scene, Barbara is waiting in the hotel room for her lover to finish his business meeting downstairs when, from the adjoining room, a young and beautiful girl sneaks into her room and they begin talking. She is the girlfriend of Barbara's lover's partner. The young girl talks about the budding relationship between them and tells Barbara he's going to help her leave. They peruse a magazine full of wedding rings and like little girls, each pick one out and try on the paper fitting. When the young girl asks Barbara "is it hard?", referring to the process of defecting to West Germany, Barbara's cold stare tells her (and us) everything about the daydreamed atmosphere they exist within. It's no surprise that later in the film, Barbara makes a particularly stunning self-sacrifice. This act of unerring kindness and fatalistic settlement back into her rural purgatory (there's that idea again) carry on Petzold's bittersweet outlook on life and its reflection in cinema.