Tuesday, May 19, 2015

70's Bonanza: Le Serpent

French filmmaker Henri Verneuil hit his stride in the late 60's and early 70's with a trilogy of films including "The Sicilian Clan" (1969), "The Burglars" (1971) and "Le Serpent" (1973)..... highly entertaining (and star studded) "policiers" that have yet to find their due in widespread distribution here in the States. The Austin Film Society recently included "The Burglars" in a repertory screening under the auspicious title of "The French Connection", but that's the extent of Verneuil's impact on American screens. Even though I love the frenetic pace of "The Burglars"- in which Omar Shariff and Jean Paul Belmondo engage in one of the finest car chase sequences ever put to film- Verneuil's "Le Serpent" is the better film of the bunch.... a cerebral, coolly detached spy tale that spends much more time on the diagnostics of a lie detector test than the various dead bodies that wash up along European shores. Like John Huston's "The Kremlin Letter"- which also trades in skulduggery without a hint of pretension- "Le Serpent" details the carousel of double crosses, political innuendo, 'spyspeak' and Cold War fixations with an icy gaze. It's only fitting that, in the finale, when head spook Henry Fonda makes a swap with the Russians to bring back a downed Air Force pilot, not only does the film's biggest enemy get off easily, but its prefaced with a line of dialogue where Fonda says the intel of the American officer in "explaining just how the Russians were able to shoot him down at 30,000 feet" becomes more important than anything we've observed over the past two twisting, convoluted hours. I can only imagine this nonchalance is apt par for the course in the world of high stakes spy games.
Beginning with the defection of KGB agent Yul Brenner, his information to the Americans (and namely Fonda) sets in motion the devious wheels of "Le Serpent". His intel- that there are highly placed spies in all echelons of governments around the world- kick starts a series of murders, wearisome eyes and urgent secret memos in both France and America. Philippe Noiret is one such agent cast under suspicion. British officer Dirk Bogarde, seemingly with his fingers in every cookie jar, plays both sides. Fonda is unsure of Brenner's real intentions. And all the while, bodies of agents turn up dead, others go missing and seemingly innocent photographs belie sinister intentions. All of this is handled in Verneuil's no-nonsense approach, refusing to telegraph anyone's actual motive and creating a paranoid atmosphere where anyone could be "le serpent" working their magic to eradicate the others.
I can't see "Le Serpent" existing in any other time period than the 70's. Echoing the later American thrillers of Sydney Pollack and especially Alan J. Pakula, "Le Serpent" is an arid exploration of the callowness involved in world politics. The basic sentiment of wanting our world to be safe, but not knowing just exactly how we make it so safe, continually runs through the veins of this film. It's a thriller, yes, but also a pretty frightening document of plausible denialability.

Friday, May 15, 2015

In Praise of Maggie Cheung #2

The following is an ongoing exploration of the prolific work of actress Maggie Cheung

In the Mood For Love (2000), directed by Wong Kar Wai

Probably the pinnacle of Maggie's western attention came in her fourth collaboration with filmmaker Wong Kar Wai in the elegiac, heartbreaking "In the Mood For Love". Widely hailed as a masterpiece, Cheung's performance is all body language, eye gestures, unrequited glances and slow soft finger movements to her mouth as she puffs on a cigarette. It's an extremely seductive performance.

Set in 1960's Hong Kong, Cheung plays neighbor to Tony Leung, newly arrived at the tenement, and the two immediately form a sexual attraction, but decide not to pursue carnal lust since they're both married and their social structures (plus the confines of stifling moral code of the time) won't condone such a relationship. Filmed in dreamy slow-motion, which only heightens the beauty of both Cheung and Leung, "In the Mood For Love" is a two hour tease, revealing that its often much more powerful to portray repression than all-out passion. For fans of Cheung- or cinema itself, this is required viewing.

Full Moon In New York (1991), directed by Stanley Kwan

Made just before Kwan's masterpieces of the 90's, "Center Stage" and "Red Rose, White Rose", "Full Moon In New York" feels like the blander companion piece to "Farewell, China"... as if the woman Maggie Cheung embodied in that film actually settled herself and carved out a respectable (and sane) lifestyle in the carnivorous city. The story here involves three women, including Sylvia Chang and I-Chen Ko, who become friends and bond while they deal with a series of problems ranging from an unhappy marriage to the pitfalls of couch-crashing in between acting gigs.

Cheung has the juiciest role, though, as Lee, a lesbian flailing against her inner voices and falling for a real estate buyer in the meantime. Although "Full Moon In New York" repudiates any explicit actions of homosexuality (instead lingering on a sole knee grab and an emotionally charged confrontation when her lover walks in on her kissing a man), Cheung does just enough to almost make one wish the entire film had focused on her instead of the marginally involving issues of the others. Sadly, "Full Moon in New York" didn't quite live up to my expectations- based on the few Kwan I've seen- yet it should be good for Cheung completists.

A Fishy Story (1989), directed by Anthony Chan
Suspect title aside (probably from a broken translation or blurb I'm not familiar with), "A Fishy Story" stars Cheung and Kenny Bee as neighbors who struggle together during the 1960's. She wants to be a movie star and he simply wants to outlast the local riots and get back to earning money driving a cab. The film starts off unsure of itself, but, as it works towards its slightly cliched but tenderly rendered finale, it builds momentum. Cheung, resplendent in all hues of orange, gold and blue lighting, is again wonderful. Plus, its use of The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" predates its use in Hou Hsiao Hsien's tales by a few years and imparts the same woozy, atmospheric tone.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What's In the Netflix Queue #39

I doubt this is still contemporaneous with the advent and growth of streaming, but I still love holding a DVd disc in my hand. So, the next 10 titles in my queue:

1. J.W. Coop (1971)- Continuing my intensive 70's viewing with Cliff Robertson starring (and directing) about a rodeo rider trying to regain his career.

2. Beyond Outrage (2012)- Underwhelmed by Kitano's oblique and glacial gangster-fest "Outrage", this sequel promises more of the same. As a Kitano completist, I need to see it.

3. The Best Offer (2013)- What happened to director Giuseppe Tornatore? Huge success with "Cinema Paradiso" and helped launch the career of Monica Bellucci with "Malena", yet his films rarely get US distribution. This one, seemingly a thriller about a recluse (Geoffrey Rush) rediscovering his passion with an enigmatic client (per the Netflix description), never made it on my radar.

4. Tim's Vermeer (2013)- Documentary that got quite a bit of buzz last year.

5. Two In the Wave (2010)- Documentary double feature about the nouvelle vague, following Truffaut and Godard. Right up my alley.

6. Memphis (2013)- I remember this ending up on quite a few best of lists in its respective year. Film about a singer wandering about the titular city.

7. Stranger By the Lake (2013)- Alaine Guiraudie's highly respected but risque experimental tale about a murder around a lake frequented by homosexuals.

8. A Grin Without a Cat (1977)- Chris Marker's essay about power struggles in the 60's and 70's. Marker is a highly intellectual filmmaker whose work sometimes goes right over my head. This film, originally released in the late 70's then removed and restored by Marker himself, is often regarded as one of his most influential films.

9. Marketa Lazarova (1967)- One of those Criterion releases that has one scratching their head. I'd honestly never heard of it before, but that's the outright joy Criterion often exposes in cinema. Described as a "poetic and stirring depiction of a feud between two rival clans".

10. Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009)- Another film that has me shaking my head (like the Criterion above) but for wholly different reasons. I have no idea why its in my queue, but I see it stars Shannyn Sossamon. I went through a phase of loving her a couple years back so I can only guess this is residual affection for her. Hey, she plays a crack addict. Can't be THAT bad.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.5

Child 44

Daniel Espinosa's "Child 44" is a meandering, gloomy hybrid that successfully merges the murder-mystery thriller against the stifling backdrop of Stalin's early 1950's regime... a period in time where individual thought, personal expression and cultural shifts of the West were contained and punished behind a frightening curtain of fascist control. Even the idea of murder- considered a "capitalist" act- is forbidden here. This dire, oppressive state is where "Child 44" begins, following respected soldier Demidov (Tom Hardy) as he struggles to justify his intentions to solve a series of child murders while trying to maintain orders from his superiors (Vincent Cassel) and subordinates (namely Joel Kinneman) who only seem to care about progressing their own futures. Much of the criticism leveled at the film thus far is its pace and mood- both factors I found absorbing and compelling. Yes, the jump start into the procedural aspect of the film takes a while, but it's the build up and eventual justification for Demidov (and wife, played by Noomi Rapace) to buck the system and try to do what's right that gives the film its emotional purpose. "Child 44", like Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg" and Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon", brilliantly presents the notion that certain times and places in history are melting pots for violent actions that not only reflect the moral vacuum but are existential outcries against the time itself.

Clouds of Sils Maria

After the opening few minutes where we observe the jittery, technology-fixated personal assistant Kristen Stewart field calls and report back to her actress-icon boss (Juliet Binoche), Olivier Assayas' latest film, "Clouds of Sils Marie" settles down for what may be his most patient, unhurried film yet. His ability to capture incandescent facial ticks and near-perfect moments of realization, connection and raw emotion are still present, but they're buried within three great performances from the above mentioned actresses as well as the troublemaker-cum-trainwreck young star played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Dealing with the personal and professional crisis of Binoche when her filmmaker turned mentor dies, "Clouds of Sils Maria" is essentially her film as she struggles with the decision whether to accept the role in a sequel to the film that once made her a star or stumble back into her life of hushed whispers and token Hollywood CGI starring gigs. The interplay between her and Stewart is natural, unforced, and as the layers of life versus unreal cinema life bleed into each other, Assayas maintains a steady (almost ethereal) grasp on the whole thing. It's not one of his masterworks, but even a solid Assayas film is better than 90% of what's out there.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Regional Review: A Teacher

Austin Filmmaker Hannah Fidell's technical and thematic maturity doesn't seem to fit her young age (now only 28)..... especially since the salacious material in her feature length debut "A Teacher" is an easily untranslatable subject. But, she makes it work and work beautifully, almost peeling back the skin of her lead character Diana (Lindsay Burdge) with her camera and creating images that feel like they're projecting out of her increasingly crumbling sense of mind. As the thirty-something teacher hopelessly (and physically) unquenched by her relationship with teenage student Eric (Will Brittain), it'd be easy to dismiss "A Teacher" without seeing it for fear of something close to 'erotica-lite'. After all, Jennifer Lopez recently bombed with "The Boy Next Door", so scandalous older woman-student diversions aren't the most respected genres out there. Yet it's not necessarily the material that's stunning about Fidell's film. Although it is sexually frank and continually frames its May-December couple in no nonsense moments of intimacy and grown up playfulness, "A Teacher" is only the jumping off point for something more troubling, which comes into effect through the naturalistic and nuanced performance of Burdge as she reveals a woman running from some whispered emotional vacancies in her life and using her taboo attraction to mask the scars of something deeper.

Employing a mixture of over-the-shoulder hand held shots (as Fidell admitted in an interview with "Filmmaker" magazine that she cribbed from watching all the Dardenne Brothers films) and glacial tracking moves, the overall mood of "A Teacher" is haunting and assured. As Diana's mental state and ability to control the passion confusedly swirling inside her escalates, Fidell's camera sinks closer and more unstable. If anything, Fidell's film belongs in the new wave category of young directors taking the cinema of Michael Haneke a step further and adding their own millennial generation spin. Antonio Campus ("Afterschool" and "Simon Killer"), Sean Durkin ("Marcy May Marlene") and Gerardo Naranjo ("Miss Bala") all tackle uncomfortable subjects head-on, refusing to flinch and utilizing their cameras as if we were watching surveillance footage, daring us to look away at the abhorred themes of youthful dispassion and mental insecurity. Even though we're not dealing with violent Mexican drug cartels or sadistic teen murderers with "A Teacher", its story is equally unsettling in the bland, cumulative ways it reveals the slow dissolve of a fragile mind. The moment teacher Diana (in school dance chaperon mode) hopelessly and jealously stares at a female student in the bathroom mirror simply because she went to the dance as young Eric's age appropriate date, we know the damage is irreparable. Like her entire performance, it's there in the eyes and guarded body language of actress Burdge.

Not a native Texan, Fidell's "A Teacher" does take place in Austin, Texas. Largely indistinguishable (except for a few out-of-focus I-35 shots with downtown looming in the distance), the film does detour into the hill country when Diana and Eric steal away to a ranch in the country. The freedom provided by its sun-drenched country soon becomes troubling. They may feel secluded, but the owner of the ranch (who alludes to knowing Eric but more specifically his father) unexpectedly drops in and almost busts the two together. Serving as the sensible wake-up call to Diana, she suggests the two cool their relationship for a while, which is easier said than done on her part. The rest of the film remains couched in numbing suburbia.... neighborhoods of pleasant looking houses and drab, fluorescent school hallways, but there is that wonderful sense of vastness represented by the ranch. Like Texas itself, "A Teacher" explores the highs and lows of this state's erratic landscapes.

With her next film already completed and receiving good word of mouth at this year's South by Southwest Festival, its fairly easy to say Hannah Fidell has arrived. I hope she continues her competent explorations of both Texas and the complex dynamics of the people who inhabit it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.4

Woman In Gold

Based on a true story about an aging woman's quest to see the Klimt artwork that was stolen from her family during World War II returned to its rightful heirs, Simon Curtis' "Woman In Gold" kept me involved since the idea of looted Nazi art has long been a fascination for me. Not so fascinating is the filmmaker's attempt to "cutify" the relationship between snippy Helen Mirren and shaggy-dog, good boy lawyer Ryan Reynolds, who honestly feels wrong for the role. Their imple, one-note performances aside, "Woman In Gold" excels when it tells the parallel story of Marie Altmann (Mirren) as a young girl (played to perfection by Tatiana Maslany) and just how their family dealt with the oncoming Nazi oppression. Not only does the 1940's set portion of the film ably emanate the fear, anxiety and taut intrigue of Marie's flight from her homeland, but it bolsters the frustrated energy of present-day Mirren and the incessant bureaucratic blockades thrown in front of her. Alongside "The Rape of Europa", "Woman In Gold" tells an all-too shameful story with glimmers of hope that certain pieces of great art can still be redeemed and reunited in the proper hands.

Beyond The Reach

Should be retitled "Figures In the Landscape Part 2". For the first two-thirds of the way, this is a taut and wry survival thriller until a final ten minutes completely wrecks it. Full review at Dallas Film Now.

While We're Young

The films of Noah Baumbach can be alienating and acerbic, dealing with highly intellectual people who come off as either pretentious, stuck up or downright screwed up (see "Greenberg"). In "While We're Young", that pretty much all describes its main couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts. But instead of creating a lonely emotional vacuum for his characters to flounder, complain and waste away in, he imbues them with some depth and even had me caring about them. As a forty-something married couple, childless and left behind by the other couples of their age, Stiller and Watts find energy in a young couple (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfreid) and try to re-live some of the spontaneity they once felt. Weaving in some smart filmic in-jokes and, ultimately ending up as a rather profound (and very funny) meditation on the veritable "truth" that lies right before their eyes, "While We're Young" ranks as the best film Baumbach has crafted yet. And Charles Grodin is fantastic.

Electric Slide

A weird, off kilter Godard homage that, even though it has its shortcomings, I still recommend for its New Wave pop soundtrack and beautifully framed aesthetic. Read the full review at Dallas Film Now.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Tunes For A Blood Moon Night

One of the better songs so far this year.

Continuing the strong year for female singer-songwriters. Carlile deserves her hard sought attention.

Massive love for Dallas band The Toadies (and short lived band Comet), but centro-matic/Will Johnson are a close second.

And here's Comet, such a shame these guys never broke through. Like Explosions In the Sky but a bit more off-kilter in their epic arrangements.