Friday, April 13, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.2


As soon as Jason Clarke (as Ted Kennedy) mutters "I'm never going to be president" in the backseat of a car immediately after fleeing a crime scene, fears of overblown grandiosity creep into John Curran's "Chappaquidick". Thankfully, it mostly steers clear of any remaining obvious moments, settling into a drama that dares to taint the Kennedy legacy just a bit through the portrait of Ted Kennedy as someone not quite worthy of the monarchistic lineage of his saintly brothers and punitive father (Bruce Dern). The other surprise here is Ed Helms as Kennedy's best friend and trusted advisor Joe Gargan, a figure that seems to have lost the most in the scandal. I'd love to see more of him in able dramas.

Tons of new stuff at Dallas Film

Gemini- One of the year's best films.  Full review here

The Death of Stalin    Review here

 Krystal- Quite annoying for how it's precocious lead wins a beautiful woman.   Review here 

 Where Is Kyra?- As the film winds down, we know things won’t end well for Kyra and her boyfriend (Kiefer Sutherland), who reluctantly becomes involved with her affairs as well. The tone has been established from the outset. There are no big breaks for people like this. Only bad luck and obstinate bureaucracies. Full thoughts here

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Home Away From Home: John Duigan's "Flirting"

I never attended a boarding school. I never possessed the philosophical angst of young Danny (Noah Taylor). And I certainly never had a girlfriend like Thandie Newton fall for my non philosophical and angst-ridden self. Yet, having admitted all that, John Duigan's "Flirting" still manages to inhabit a space of young adulthood that feels both exaggerated and intimate.... truthful and fitfully novel.... and, above all, aligned with the pitfalls and soaring emotions of a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale whose moments both big and small feel like a universal framework for us all.

Pairing with young Noah Taylor a few years earlier with "The Year My Voice Broke" (1987), writer and director John Duigan presents their relationship as a sort of American Truffuat/Leaud. In "Flirting", Taylor plays the same character of Danny Embling, a moody and uninterested intellectual at a British boarding school, several years removed from his prepubescent sexual reckoning in that earlier film. Choosing to steer (mostly) clear of the jockish antics of his rugby playing peers, Danny instead buries his nose in a book. The only respite from the boys' daily helpings of testosterone-schoolmate-punishings and fart jokes lies in the queasy relationship of the girls who go to school across the way. Bunched together at chaperoned dances or sporting events, it's one of these anxious social outings that Danny is first noticed by newcomer Thandiwe (Thandie Newton). Their relationship grows slowly, flirting between the ears as opposites of their school's respective debate teams and then eventually as they constantly break the rules and sneak across the small body of water to steal time with each other.

Like most high school coming-of-age films, there are various fumblings, falling-outs and childish gossip that threaten to ruin their romance. An innocent letter sent from Thandiwe to Danny finds the wrong hands at one point, causing ridicule for Danny. The ever-watchful eye of school superiors makes it increasingly difficult for the pair to find time together. And, in a rare feat from a film written by a male, the prerogative gaze slowly shifts onto the women over the boys, creating indelible and curious portraits of young women grappling with many of the same insecurities and fallible thoughts as the young men. Supporting performances by a young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts provide just as much intelligence about the sensitive upheavals caused by puberty, never forgetting the fragile existence of either chromosome within the battle of the sexes.

Director Duigan would go onto a strong career of minor gems ("Lawn Dogs" with Sam Rockwell anyone?), but "Flirting" remains his masterpiece. It's a film that-besides launching a number of terrific talents- has the courage and sincerity to tackle such a common subject with varying degrees of complexity. I can't say I've ever drowned myself in the works of Kafka quite like Danny Embling, but I have experienced the acute pangs of a star-crossed relationship, living through letters and second guessing every emotion and decision about said person. All that's left now is for Duigan to continue the lives of Thandiwe and Danny after all these years.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.1

Red Sparrow

Francis Lawrence's "Red Sparrow" is just the type of spy film we deserve right now. Visually beguiling and arid in its emotions, the film takes no prisoners in the way it frankly dissects the viciousness of empty political vessels using mind and body to wage a cold war. Jennifer Lawrence- using her stardom to spin a female character both sexy and dangerous- is the draw here, but "Red Sparrow" largely succeeds because of its reluctance to play anything safe.... which was evident in the many guffaws and gasps experienced during my mature aged audience expecting a "Hunger Games"- esque escape. After the third of fourth brutal torture scene, all hope was zapped from the theater. I loved it even more, then.

 Game Night

Better-than-average, smartly constructed comedy (thankfully relatively low on the raunch factor), with an engaging cast (especially Rachel McAdams) "Game Night" is also the coming out party for Jessie Plemmons. As soon as an actor like Plemmons gets tapped to play a quirky, unhinged character like the one here, you know he's arrived. Highly self-aware but imbued with an overarching honesty despite its wink-wink humor, "Game Night" excels at most everything it attempts.


Praise must be given for the first two-thirds of Cory Finley's directorial debut "Thoroughbreds" as it maintains a level of formal brilliance and thematic speculation that sincerely keeps the viewer off balance. We watch as two high school friends reconnect after years of unfriendliness- perfectly played by Olivia Cook and Ana Taylor Joy- and hatch a plot that's as nihilistic and psychotic as the feelings pulsing beneath their glassy eyes. When those plot mechanisms kick in, the film loses a bit of its momentum, but "Thoroughbreds" is still a bold and unnerving exploration of the emptiness once exaggerated in so many Bret Easton Ellis novels of the 80's. 

Saturday, March 03, 2018

70's Bonanza: Operation Ogre

In the latter half of the twentieth century, cinema's attraction to the heroic romanticism and ultimate fatalism of the Wild West outlaw shifted onto the righteous terrorist. Just as committed to their brand of outlaw justice as Billy the Kid, the terrorist also served as the perfect (for better or worse) embodiment of the every-man's indignant right to fight "the man". So, it's no surprise that far left-wing filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (who ascended to international acclaim after his 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers") would make such a film like "Operation Ogre" in which the sole burden of empathy and attention is given to a set of terrorists who meticulously planned and attacked Spanish Prime Minister Luis Blanco in 1973. In fact, their bomb was so potent that it sent the Prime Minister's car up in the air far enough to land on a building the next street over. The fact that "Operation Ogre" isn't just a radicalized political statement or transparent attempt to memorialize such men and women is a feat Pontecorvo pulls off brilliantly. In fact, I'd dare call "Operation Ogre" his best film, even better than "The Battle of Algiers" or the cultish "Burn!" starring Marlon Brando. More of a procedural thriller with some stunning shifts of time than anything else, its such a sad fact this film is rarely available on any home video format.

Starring the always fascinating Gian Marie Volonte as the leader of the Basque revolutionary group who travel to Madrid to assassinate Blanco, the name of the film is derived from the military operation assigned the mission. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Just when the group thinks they have their plan figured out, Blanco is promoted to Prime Minister, which not only alters his daily schedule but includes an influx of new bodyguards. Patiently following Volonte and his group as they audible their own plans, the film soon settles on their doom's-day-ticking-clock attempts to bury a bomb beneath one of the PM's main routes to and from church everyday.

Outside of their tense main mission, Pontecorvo throws in a couple of emotional curveballs, such as the relationship between of one of the terrorists and his wife, including one jarring narrative slip that jumps ahead in time to reveal the diminishing rewards of their violent actions and its repercussions on those who surround them. If nothing else, Pontecorvo routinely understands that the revolutionary life isn't without its mortal sacrifices.

Based on a novel by Julien Aguirre and released just 6 years after the assassination, "Operation Ogre" would be the last feature film directed by Pontecorvo before consuming himself in documentary work. It's a fitting piece. For someone who began his career championing the suspect rule of governments and the violent insurrection possible by its citizens, "Operation Ogre" reveals that his passion for violent change was unwavering.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Last Few Films I've Seen, early 2018 edition

1. Princess Cyd (2017)- Had I made time for this in '17, it most certainly would have placed pretty high on my 'best of the year' list. Gentle, knowing and heartfelt tale that slinks along with intelligence in dealing with the fumbling emotions of a 16 year old girl (Jessie Pinnick, wonderful) spending a few weeks in Chicago with her aunt (Rebecca Spence). There's no huge moments, just perfectly realized characters finding their way through this certain time together. And the speech given by Spence to Cyd in the kitchen after a party feels ten times more real and moving than the speech given by Michael Stuhlbarg in "Call Me By Your Name"..... which earned him an Oscar nomination by the way.

2. Flower (2018)- can't say much. review upcoming at Dallas Film Now. Zoey Deutch is the real shit, though.

3. The Devil, Probably (1977)- Robert Bresson's second to last film, highly regarded by most and still so hard to see today. Dry is an understatement. Watching this group of social and environmentally active group of teens sleep with each other, fall in and out of love, question God, then ultimately question themselves is not without its blessings.... it just also feels very self-serving. I love the way Bresson remains entrenched on watching hands, bodies and objects more than the faces of his characters, though. I also see where Bertrand Bonello probably drew his inspirations for last year's "Nocturama".

4. Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017). What I said about "Princess Cyd" applies here as well. I can't even recall this thing playing in Dallas last year. Maybe a midnight Alamo Drafthouse event? Regardless, it's a relentlessly hardcore exploration of the decisions made when pinned between a rock and a hard place. Vince Vaughn is amazing as the ex-boxer pinched for dealing drugs, then forced to sink lower and lower into the pits of confinement hell when given an ultimatum. It all becomes quite exploitative, but in the best way.

5. Mustang Island (2017)- One of the films I missed at last year's Dallas International Film Festival, which it went onto win the Texas Jury Prize from. Head scratching mistake if you ask me. Filmed in that deadpan, black and white early Jarmusch way, even its aesthetic screams precocious. It's story? Not much better. Macon Blair drags two buddies on a stalker-esque quest to find his recent ex-girlfriend at her beach home on the Texas coast. Of course, life lessons and new loves are earned. Everything in this effort has been done better and more sincerely.

6. Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958)- What a day for Chief Inspector Gideon (Jack Hawkins) of Scotland Yard, who has to deal with crooked cops, murder and a payroll robbery all in one day. Handled deftly (if not fairly pedantic) by Ford, the film is worth watching only for his handling of the stiff, tight-lipped manner in which most British film of the 50’s and 60’s were shrouded in.

7. Gator (1976)-  Burt Reynolds directed southern-action flick about an ex convict named, yes, Gator (Reynolds) enlisted by the feds to infiltrate and bring down old buddy Jerry Reed. The seven year old in me would have loved the opening 20 minutes of speed boat chases along the Louisiana bayou.

8. The Whispering Star (2014)- Either one likes Sion Sono's films or not. "Tokyo Tribe" anyone? The man is a true punk rocker in a long line of cinematic Japansese saboteurs. "The Whispering Star" is yet another deviation in his work. Quite slow, reflective and featuring one sequence of breathtaking visual acuity, the film tracks a robot delivering mail packages to people around various solar systems are her brief interactions with them. Though the worlds she ultimately lands on look like post apocalyptic wastelands of Earth (for good reason since Sono filmed in areas around the Fukushima power plant meltdown), the small beauty lies in their interactions that range from obscure to heartbreaking.

9. The 1517 To Paris (2018)- Very confused by this. I've liked Eastwood's efforts less and less since his masterpiece "Mystic River", and this one features the real life men who stopped a terrorist attack onboard a French train a few years back. The problem is, none of these guys can act and Eastwood chooses to begin with their friendship in grade school, which comes off just as tone-deaf and hackneyed as one would imagine. It doesn't get any better as it goes along, either.

10. Norwegian Wood (2009)- Based on acclaimed author Marukami's novel of the same name, Tran Ahn Hung brings the story of young star-crossed lovers to light with ethereal beauty and texture. Friends since childhood, the always splendid Rinko Kinkuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama react to the suicide of their best friend in different ways... ways that pull and push them together for years afterward. This is a film that reminded me of the early films of Julio Medem in the way life is messy and rude and beautiful each time we meet someone new. Not to mention, this features one FANTASTIC score by Jonny Greenwwod. Yes, even better than most of his P.T. Anderson films.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Cinema Obscura: Costa Gavras' "Shock Troops"

One of my favorite films of all time is Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1969). A masterpiece of murky atmosphere grown even murkier by the way a hushed betrayal shatters the once-trusting bond between comrades and lovers, it's a film that distills all the madness, loyalty and violence of the French Resistance into a seamless potboiler thriller.

If that film is the austere entry in the genre of Resistance films, than Costa-Gavras' "Shock Troops" (produced just two years prior to Melville's film) is the 1980's Cannon Films meathead production of the same events. That backhanded praise aside, "Shock Troops" is no less an important statement about the travails of France during World War II than Melville's more prestigious effort. It just goes about things in a much broader (and more violent) way like an aggressive cousin to Melville's masterpiece.

Instead of focusing on the underground (yet highly visible) people of the urban French Resistance, "Shock Troops" follows the band of the Maquis, which were the groups of armed French Resistance fighters who gave German troops the most trouble during their occupation of France. Residing in the mountainous terrain around the state and moving in swiftly, killing hordes of soldiers, bombing railroad lines and government offices, the Maquis would then retreat to their hillsides safe zones which the German military controlled little insight or strategy around. It worked for awhile. One of these swift actions opens "Shock Troops" wherein the group (including Jean Paul Briarly, Charles Vanal and Bruno Cremer) stage a brash infiltration of a prison and free the group of French men inside. One of the men, played by Michel Piccoli, comes under scrutiny by the group as to whether he's a double agent or not. Not only does his presence complicate the trust and civility of the Maquis, but it clouds their judgement as German troops slowly begin to encircle their encampment in the hillsides.

Marked by several strong episodes of violence- including the finale as the group does battle with a Panzer tank that methodically zeroes in on their coordinates- "Shock Troops" is much more yell than whisper, which ultimately sets it apart from Melville's more interior rationalization of the French Resitance's ultimate 'fait de acompli'.

However, its also a film that gives amazing honor to the story of French Resistance through its unabashed glee in gunfire and explosions. Not all of the Resistance were satisfied in subtle cloak and dagger. They were armed, impatient and just as ready to crush their occupiers as their occupiers were zealous to crush them. As Costa Gavras' action-infused early film shows, there's certainly room for both comments on this time in history on the spectrum.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Moments of 2017

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 (19 years running now!) 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.

- Rooney Mara listening to “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms on the headset her husband (Casey Affleck) carefully places over her head, and the way her eyes try to avoid showing the emotion welling up inside her.  “A Ghost Story”

- The casting of Peter Verby as a psychiatrist in Josh and Benny Sadie’s “Good Time”. He’s the type of real life person who would be at home in a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

- In “Call Me By Your Name”, the needle drop onto the Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way”…. the impetus to get Elio (Timothee Chalamat) onto the dance floor.

- A flash of lightning in the sky and a long, slow pan down the city landscape, eventually settling on an alleyway as a man (Denzel Washington) creeps in the shadows.  “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

- A handheld shot of a man hustling through a crowded newsroom and laying a piece of paper on the desk of a copy editor, muttering “you’ve got ten minutes”…. and then pencil begins making marks on the paper. The distillation of the urgency and intelligence of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post”

- “What is this… a compatibility test? Like what some people do with Vonnegut or “The Big Lebowski?”  Zoe Kazan in “The Big Sick”

- In Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery”, Will (Jason Segal) turning back to the woman (Rooney Mara) and child on the beach, beginning to say something when the film cuts to black and leaves us imagining what life comes next for him.

- A chimpanzee gently taking bananas from the silent hands of Jane Goodall.   “Jane”

- Really the whole performance of Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project”, but especially the way his glances and body language slowly evolves as he begins and ends a conversation with a man talking to his group of kids, culminating with an outburst of anger that’s so real, startling, humane.

- A man (Alex Brendemuhl) watches his wife (Marion Cotillard) frantically run after an ambulance and the painfully altered reality that snowballs into damning focus for both.  “From the Land of the Moon”

- A potion being dipped into the water and lifeless fish gently rising to the top.  “The Lost City of Z”

- Fred Armisen’s appearance in “The Little Hours”. One scene is enough to send this film over the top as one of the year’s best comedies.

- In “BladeRunner 2049”, Two women- one real (Makenzie Davis) and one not (Ana de Armas)- intertwining and meshing their bodies. A spectacular piece of visual trickery made all the more poignant for the ways it exudes sensuality and dare I say ‘human’ emotion.

- “First They Killed My Father”. An explosion reflected in the black pupil of a little girl (Sareum Srey Moch) and the frightening confusion that begins.

- In “Columbus”, an explanation told from behind glass, gently withheld from us as Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) describes her feelings to Jin (John Cho).

- An overhead shot of bullets ricocheting off a shield.   “Wonder Woman” and her battle for no man’s land.

- A girl, ambling slowly over to a hospital window and a young boy on the bed saying “I want to try and see to….” before his body rolls off the bed and thuds on the floor. Yorgis Lanthimos exploring the myths of the nuclear family and how easily they come undone in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”.

- The way Florence Pugh constantly squirms, writhes and bites her teeth in the background as the people around her try to ascertain the truth. Call it the ultimate bit of modernity infused into a Victorian domestic drama.  “Lady Macbeth”

- The fight in the fog and judging where the creatures are by the sound of the ‘whistle arrows’. “The Great Wall”

- The boorish way Kristen Stewart relents and tries on the harness dress after being urged on by the dresser… and then she seductively commands the screen for the next few minutes in wordless glances in the mirror at herself.  “Personal Shopper”

- The reaction of Nick Offerman to the line reading by Lee (Sam Elliot). Sci-fi schlock from the paper turned into poignant and real commentary.  “The Hero”

- Taylor Sheridan never met a row of speeding cars he didn’t like….. The swooping crane shot as four cars zoom across an Indian reservation in “Wind River”.

- In “The Lost City of Z”, several men jump overboard their small boat and the piranha attack that begins. That’s the reason they couldn’t catch fish in their nets.

- In Dee Rees’ “Mudbound”, the final voiceover from Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and the moment he sees his son peer out from behind the doorway.

- “I’m gonna create some weird shit.”    “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

- Partially obscured by a mesh screen, the thousand yard stare emitted by Connie (Robert Pattinson) from the backseat of a cop car.   “Good Time”

- Two men fighting, and then the muffled reverberating sound of a plate glass window from the inside as their bodies slap against it.  “Gold”

- The reserved, almost pathetic stare Lady Bird (Sairose Ronan) gives her mom (Laurie Metcalf) before retreating back into a dressing room and wondering if this is currently the best version of herself.  “Lady Bird”

- After spending an entire movie choking back her emotions, the way Jane Banner’s (Elizabeth Olsen)
body convulses into a wave of deep sorrow, lying on a hospital bed murmuring “she ran six miles”.  “Wind River”

- “Well, my story line’s disappearing. What. The. Fuck.” Alison Janney in “I, Tonya”

- The sunset in the sky behind Carey Mulligan as she showers for the first time in her exterior homemade bathroom.  “Mudbound”

- Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) and her mad dance illuminated by the headlights of a parked car. “Columbus”

- With the camera poised inches from her face, the way Brea laments her pain is too much to endure on that given day and is she really invisible? Luckily, her documentary gives visibility to the invisible.  “Unrest”

- And the scene of the year: after finding “never cursed” sewn into the lining of a wedding dress, the cut to a fire-lit bedroom and Reynolds (Daniel Day Lewis) seeing his mother in the corner of the room and the short but heartbreaking confession he begins to mumble…. And we thought fathers were the problem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe.   “Phantom Thread”

Welcome 2018!