Saturday, July 19, 2014

Double Feature: Bigas Luna's Anguish and Caniche

Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna, who passed away last year, is a relatively unknown exploration in cinema for me. His films are not talked about much. Add to the fact his work is largely ignored here in America and mostly unavailable on home video, and it becomes clear he's not regarded as an essential figure. Well, after seeing two of his films from different periods in his career, I can attest his influence should be seen by many. Making films from 1978 until 2010, Luna's biggest side note seems to be his penchant for telling stories with a decidedly twisted, perverse sense of morality... and the fact that he basically discovered young Penelope Cruz and cast her in his 1992 film "Jamon, Jamon". Pitched somewhere between the classical style of Carlos Saura and the more wildy ambitious, sexually frenzied new wave of Julio Medem and Pedro Almodovar, Luna is a case study I hope to further develop.

The more accessible of the two films discussed here is "Anguish". Released in 1987, it could best be described as an art-house slasher film. Even though that sounds boring, please give it a try. It starts out uneveningly… a cross between a psych-out grind house film and “Psycho” re-invented with Zelda Rubenstein as the domineering mother and centrifugal force behind her son’s desire to kill people and cut out their eyeballs. As the son/killer, Michael Lerner plays his role to weird perfection, full of smarmy glances, nervous ticks and an equally unhealthy fascination with caged birds. But after the son commits his first murder (full of blood pools and cheesy horror film chases), Luna turns the tables on the genre and “Anguish” becomes super-meta. We soon realize that the mother/son gore fest is a film-within-the-film and we’re introduced to a host of people sitting in a darkened theater watching a film (humorously called “The Mother”). The on-screen unpleasantness seems to be bothering some movie-going patrons, especially young and impressionable Pattie (Talia Paul), whose squeamish reactions to every eye-slicing scene becomes more and more troubling. Added to the discomfort of the movie watchers is the incessant hypnosis that mother Rubenstein inflicts upon her son on-screen, complete with spiraling records, slow moving snails and her repetitive chants. Pattie has to get away from it all and exits the theater where she soon becomes witness to a variety of murders perpetrated by someone supremely affected by the slasher film. “Anguish” becomes a Chinese box of murders with the fictional film (art) imitating real life. Murders on-screen by the fictional son become intertwined with real life and Luna does a terrific job of mixing both time lines together so we (the real viewer in all this) become disoriented as to what’s real and what’s fictional.


“Anguish” is a bracing deconstruction of the slasher genre with something more important on its mind. And all of this is executed without a hint of sarcasm, irony or wink-wink fetishism. This is no 1980’s version of “Scream”. In fact, it plays the violence for dirty realism. Not only does he film bodies being dragged out of sight in the restroom with a perverse point of view, but the many images of people scurrying around already lifeless bodies attempting to take cover from incoming gunfire, become genuinely unnerving examples of random terror. In this day and age of repeated public shootings, YouTube suicide rants and screwed up manifestos, “Anguish” looks and feels like a prescient affair. Like the warning the film-within-the-film gives at the beginning (and a gimmick taken by provocateur Gaspar Noe years later for “I Stand Alone”), “Anguish” wants to disturb… and it achieves that brilliantly.

“Caniche” (“Poodle”), released in 1979, is Luna’s second film. Starring Angel Gove (who would act in many of his pictures) and Consol Tura as brother and sister in a completely unhealthy relationship, the film feels like an assault on a lot of things- including the domesticality of the upper class and our ever prevalent reliance of affection on animals over human beings. “Caniche” is also a film of its time. Spain, late 70’s… when a number of filmmakers were forced to convey a message against their political situation in nuanced and allegorical ways. The innocent victim in the middle of “Caniche” is Danny, a whimpering poodle forced to bear witness (and sometimes partake) of the various sexual perversions and psychological battle between brother and sister. Eloisa is constantly pulling the dog to her, settling him in comfortable positions and feeding him. Bernardo- the more silent of the couple- holds hidden feelings about his sister, becoming jealous when she begins seeing an older friend/doctor of the family. In addition, Bernardo fills his days hunting stray dogs to lock up in his basement, not only for nutrition for Danny, but to hold them for more nefarious reasons. “Caniche” is not for the faint of heart. Luna builds the story into a festering, perverse explosion that sees Bernardo literally morph into a hungry, horny, rabid dog. Its only fitting that the finale should be Danny high tailing it out of the house after the dust has settled. For an angry, veiled political shout, “Caniche” ends on an unexpectedly happy note for its conscientious observer.

Visually, “Caniche” is a fragmented effort. Full of low-level point of view shots (perhaps to indicate the perspective of a dog) and images of hands, legs, eyes and grassy exteriors, I can only recall a few times in which a character was shown in full body. It’s a decidedly intense way to build the story, leaving out more narrative than it includes. Then again, there are certain actions performed by brother and sister in “Caniche” that are better left unviewed in all their disturbing glory.

"Anguish" is available on Region 1 DVD. "Caniche" is unavailable on DVD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last Few Films I've Seen.... Summer Doldrums

1. Ida (2014)- Snowy settings, dreary interiors and square black and white cinematography.... yes we're in Polish cinema territory. But those cliches aside, Pawel Pawlikowski's mannered character study of an incoming nun discovering her family's hushed history is quietly moving. And young Agata Trzebuchowska's indelible face is just made for black and white.

 2. Cheap Thrills (2013)- Clumsily made and over-acted, E.L.Katz's hipster gore film makes me hate actor David Koechner even more. Two buddies (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) stumble into a couple looking for demented fun, and "Cheap Thrills" turns into an endurance test... not because of the escalating violence but due to its smarmy logic and uninteresting characters.

3. A Safe Place (1971)- Indie director Henry Jaglom's first film got me interested due to its starring role by the beautiful Tuesday Weld. It's story sounded even more intriguing: a film that charts the fragmented life of a young girl and the decisions she makes in romance. If it was anything like Weld's performances in Frank Perry's under seen "Play It As It Lays", I'd be in for a treat. Instead, we get a head-spinning blend of hippie jargon, long and undisciplined scenes, and a weird Orson Welles as some sort of father figure/magician/homeless park guy. Really, really bad. But then again, I never quite got Jaglom.

4. Blood Ties (2013)- I really wanted to like Guillame Canet's 70's crime film. Written by James Gray, it has his fingerprints in the textured story of good vs bad brothers and the women/fathers caught up in the middle, yet it plays the conflict way too broadly. There are too many head-scratching, beyond belief moments towards the end and everyone feels like they're acting so much. It is nice to see Billy Crudup return to the screen, though.

5. True Detective (2014)- I doubt I'll see a better TV or movie event this year. This is one brilliant, psychologically complex murder mystery that weaves its Southern jargon around a smoldering story that spans two decades. The places this show goes is scary... and not the haunted Louisianna settings but the addictions and outlooks on life spewed from its worn detectives played to perfection by Woody Harrleson and Matthew McCoughnahey. This scene alone is incredible.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Regional Review: Drive-In (1976)

There's an extended scene in Rod Amateau's "Drive-In" that places a majority of the film's characters circling each other at a roller skate rink as they flirt, fight and discuss their upcoming weekend plans. Not only does this scene feel uniquely antiquated due to its now foreign setting of a by-gone juvenile playtime (which I took part in weekly myself) that no teenager probably even knows about today, but it creates an innocent introduction to a host of kids without a hint of sarcasm or irony that would surround a scene like this today. Basically, "Drive-In" is a film of its time... and its a wonderfully realized representation of small town Texas.

Filmed in the flat, suburban town of Terrell, Texas (approximately 30 miles east of Dallas), "Drive-In" centers its action around the now defunct drive-in theater that once existed in the small town. Sadly, its now a gas station. We're introduced to a variety of people. There's Orville (Glenn Morshower, the man best known for playing Aaron Pierce on "24"), the laid back good kid who finds himself unwillingly fighting for the affections of beautiful Glowie (Lisa Lemole), even though her ex-boyfriend Enoch (Billy Milliken) is the leader of a local gang. Two older men, Will (Gordon Hurst) and Gifford (Trey Wilson, always remembered for his role as Nathan Arizona in the Coen Brothers "Raising Arizona") plan on robbing the drive-in theater later that night. Local town stud Bill (Kent Perkins) and his girlfriend have taken the first step of engagement, but they are having second thoughts. Throw in the casual mix of best friends, little brothers and adults trying to maintain a grasp on the teenagers and "Drive-In" resembles the many efforts that track teenage angst and emotional confusion through the course of one long, aimless night.

Director Rod Amateau is an interesting study. Mainly working in television, his only other film credit is the 1987 "Garbage Pail Kids Movie". From a visual stand-point, "Drive-In" is ordinary. It's the witty, Texas-lingo'ed script by Bob Peete that makes the film. Full of head-spinning analogies and aw-shucks sayings ("whoo, whee bless your mom and dad" when one character sees an amply bossomed girl), it also features some wise, philosophical moments, especially in its recreation of young love. As Glowie, Lisa Lemole (beautiful beyond belief) gets the best of them. A bit of the eye-roll is necessary at times, but that's the most charming thing about the film. Owing itself to a long line of Texas cinema, we seem to be indebted to the listless days and nights that dot our childhood. From filmmakers Richard Linklater to Texas perennial Eagle Pennell, the minute focus of a small group over the course of a short period of time has been the cathartic ambition of Texas filmmaking. And the ordinary Texas setting of Terrell fits right into the catalog of normal landscapes playing host to larger-than-life events that shape and formulate the young lives of Texas men and women. Whether its a drive-in theater, a local watering hole ("Last Night At the Alamo") or the last night of high school ("Dazed and Confused"), what really matters are the connections we create and destroy at pivotal times in our lives.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Paolo Sorrentino Files: The Consequences of Love

Paolo Sorrentino's sophomore film, "The Consequences of Love", again stars his muse Toni Servillo as another enigmatic, introverted figure at the center of a spiraling character study. Toss in some good 'ol Sicilian mafia types and the stunningly beautiful Olivia Magnani (granddaughter of Italian cinema's Anna Magnini) as the girl who sets his conscience in motion and one gets a wonderfully muted tale about the dramatic ways one can turn their life around.

Servillo plays Titta, a middle-aged recluse of sorts living out his existence in solitude at a luxurious Swiss hotel. The only pleasures he allows himself is a weekly dose of heroin and the chance to quietly observe (but never respond) to a beautiful bar hostess, Sofia (Magnini). He interacts, modestly, with other patrons of the hotel, including an old couple who constantly gamble at cards and complain about their lost lifestyle of riches and his visiting brother. Titta's other free time is spent carrying a briefcase of money back and forth to a local bank where he supervises the count. As all of this is presented in fragments and images that are difficult to determine at what point in the story their happening, Sorrentino maintains an air of mystery, showing alot but explaining very little. It's only when Titta breaks his hermit-like mold and sparks up a conversation with Sofia that the wheels of a subtle plot are set into motion. Genre suddenly kicks in and Titta makes a bold decision that not only seems to counteract his entire lifestyle of missed opportunities, but succinctly sums up the film's title as well. Like his next film, "The Family Friend", "The Consequences of Love" is Sorrentino working out the slow mechanics of two protagonist who really shouldn't be liked, yet end up as sentimental, believable anti heroes. Titta made some poor choices in ife, and he's certainly paying for them by his imposed exile, but he's not a completely bad person.... or at least as Servillo embodies him, we care.

Like all of his films, "The Consequences of Love" is stylish, kinetic and framed by a wide variety of musical choices that energize the film. And like most of his films, it also takes some warming up too.... as people and events slip in and out with little notice, only for their meaning to come blaring back later in the film. With "The Consequences of Love", it's an almost toss-away line of conversation between Titta and his brother that becomes the haunting final shot. The consequences of both love and the inevitable "what if" are magnified as one's life flashes before their eyes. And as Sorrentino stares into the eyes of Titta, we believe that both are equally devastating.

"The Consequences of Love" is available on Region 2 DVD.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.4

Night Moves

Whether it’s the vast expanse of the American frontier or the suburban Northwest, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is a fierce observer of time and place, wrapping her singular cinematic quests around interesting digressions and tactile emotions. Her latest film, “Night Moves”,  is the closest she’s come to a real genre tale- the thriller. Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning are motivated eco-terrorists. Their plot to blow up a damn in Orgeon is traced out sparingly in the first half of the film… made even more real when they team up with the older, seasoned and shaggy Peter Saarsgard. When their violent deed comes with a human price, the guilt and regret that comes rushing to the surface supersedes their original intentions as they try to move through their daily lives afterwards. Eisenberg and Fanning are the real focus here. Reichardt chooses to express her story in quiet facial expressions, nervous ticks and the somber redundancy of normal life as they attempt to come to terms with their actions. Like her previous films, “Night Moves” is patient, observational and a bit wise in the way it turns the thriller convention upside down. There are razor-sharp scenes of tension (I.e. the actual terrorist act, complete with innocent bystanders achingly prolonging and interrupting the plot), but Reichardt’s overriding concern is the psychological violence that comes with their decisions. “Night Moves” may not satisfy everyone, and it’s a film I admire more than truly like, but the manner in which the film places the viewer squarely in the clutches of these three misguided idealists is still tremendously fascinating.

Edge of Tomorrow

For the first 20 minutes of Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow”, we watch as Tom Cruise squirms and weasels his way through the predicament of a cowardly PR officer trying to escape actual combat. Those who dislike Cruise (even if they’re watching the film) will take obvious delight in it. But, as any good movie-watcher knows, this is only the set up to turn someone less-than-chivalrous into someone chivalrous-beyond-belief at film’s end. It’s the oldest narrative in the book…. And one that’s gutted, spliced and hammered into a time bending experience by gifted writer Christopher McQuarrie. “Edge of Tomorrow” plays with our expectation of the sci-fi genre, forcing Cruise to live the same day over and over. It’s a shame that day involves a huge battle of mankind versus invading aliens. But it also involves Emily Blunt as an ass-kicking soldier who may hold the key to winning the war. Honestly, the less one knows about “Edge of Tomorrow” before entering, the better the enjoyment will be. Even though Liman and McQuarrie owe a huge debt to other films, they manage to carve out taciturn depth between Cruise and Blunt. In a loud, CGI driven summer film, this is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of their effort.

The Rover

Hypothetically, the financial and social collapse of the world feels most realistic in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, visualized on screen by Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat. Those Aussies must have a pulse on the collapse. David Michod’s “The Rover” also frighteningly presents the apocalypse as a scavenged, bleak and instantly cutthroat procession of boarded up fuel stations, neon-lit motels and burned out vehicles. Swimming through the mire with a singular, propulsive purpose is Guy Pearce, intent on finding the men who hijacked his car. He stumbles across the wounded brother of one of the men, played convincingly by Robert Pattinson, and the two men embark on a journey of revenge. Like his previous film, the magisterial crime opus “Animal Kingdom”, “The Rover” is relentlessly violent and prone to sharp outbursts of gunfire that underline the power of the weaponry. But there’s also an undercurrent of emotion and silent moments of reflection that bring back the human element to this elemental narrative. Though Michod wrote this screenplay before “Animal Kingdom”, both films represent his desire to expose the hypocrisies of family and the manipulation of stronger man over a weaker individual. As the film winds down, it becomes a lean examination of these ideas and spares no one the western-style shootout its been promising since the beginning. With this second film, Michod truly is a bright spot in modern cinema.

Palo Alto

Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto”, based on the short stories of co-star James Franco, is all low-fi and full of teen angst without ever really earning its angst. We follow a handful of privileged teens as they circumvent various issues- April (Emma Roberts) begins an ill-advised relationship with coach Franco… young Teddy (Jack Kilmer) can’t seem to find the right time to fall in love with April…. Fred (Nat Wolf) seems screwed up without any real explanation other than he’s supposed to rebel against his lifestyle… and then there’s the parade of screwed up father-figures and teenage girls performing oral sex in order to feel appreciated. I’m not denying those are real emotions in 16 and 17 year olds (hell I went through them as well), they just feel half baked and unfocused. Channeling Gus Van Sant and her own family Sofia, “Palo Alto” strives to be an incisive, meditative look at these kids where a chill wave soundtrack and halcyon images just don’t do the material justice. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tuneage Again

This song just screams to be used in some big movie moment...... From one of the best albums of the year so far... a curious mixture of Sonic Youth and The Violent Femmes.....

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Produced and Abandoned #17

Ten more titles deserving a wide region 1 DVD release:

1. The Vampire of Dusseldorf (1965)- Actor/director Robert Hossein is someone whose filmmaking talents I've admired on this blog before, and this film (also known as "The Secret Killer") looks at the exploits of a serial killer in Dusseldorf during the Great Depression. Hossein made a number of moody, minor works in between acting gigs. The few I've been able to track down, including "Death of a Killer" and "Cemetery Without Crosses" only hint at the talents of this diverse man. Bottom line, we need more Hossein available.

2. Forty Deuce (1982)- Another actor turned director is Paul Morrissey. Coming from the Warhol school of experimentation, unlike Hossein, there are a number of Morrissey's films available. Low budget... twisted avant garde and counter-culture, Morrissey is a definite acquired taste. While I've enjoyed some of his works- "Flesh For Frankenstein" and "Blood For Dracula" are weirdly spirited takes on the classic horror tropes- there are major downers as well. "Trash", "Flesh" and "Heat" are the epitome of self-indulgent, aimless provocations. And they look like shit as well. So, having said all that, "Forty Deuce" is one of his later films that's disappeared. Perhaps its subject matter about a gay prostitute trying to sell a junkie teenager (a young Kevin Bacon) to an older man had something to do with its precarious existence.

3. Bloodbath (1978)- Perhaps there's a reason this mid 70's American giallo has vanished. It sounds ludicrous. From IMDB: "Chicken, a desperate hippie junkie living in a small Spanish village, is finding it difficult to separate fantasy and reality. This isn't helped by the villagers practising magic and child sacrifice, or his involvement with a group of boozy ex-patriots lost in their own dreams and regrets." Did I mention it stars a (probably coked-up) Dennis Hopper and Carroll Baker? Also known as "The Sky Is Falling".

4. The Nun (1966)- Like Robert Hossein, Jacques Rivette is another filmmaker sorely under-represented on home video. Of his 32 films, I count only 7 are available on region 1 DVD. I've heard nothing but praise for this early film in his career about the doubts and uncertainties of a woman forced to take a vow as a nun. The fact that it stars Anna Karina only boosts my anticipation to see this. It is available on YouTube (which, by the way, should get mounds of credit for having soooo many films available to watch if one searches hard enough and has the right way to watch them on their big screen TV) but its without English subs.

5. The Coca Cola Kid (1985)- I gather this film was released on DVD at one point in the 90's, but its now OOP as all copies go for ridiculous amounts online. Starring Eric Roberts as a corporate agent visiting Australia in order to expand Coca Cola's market share, the word of mouth and chatter about this film have always been affectionate. In addition, "The Coca Cola Kid" was directed by experimental Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavjev, which only heightens the wonder about this film.

6. The Assassination (1972)- Still the go-to authority on unfamiliar or secondary artists worth further exploration is "Film Comment", and last month's issue featured a small article on French filmmaker Yves Boisset. Reading through his list of films on IMDB feels like a treasure trove of 'policier' greatness waiting to be discovered. This 1972 film stars just about anyone popular in French cinema during the early 70's- with a cameo by Roy Scheider! Like many other films on these lists I create, "The Assassination" is really just an excuse for any other films by this director to be viewed and shared. The bright spot about this film and Boisset in general is that his films seem to available pretty easily if you look in the right places.

7. The Visitors (1972)- Great director Elia Kazan's second to last film, this one sounds eerie and psychologically complex: "Bill, Martha and their little child Hal are spending a quiet winter Sunday in their cosy house when they get an unexpected visit from Mike Nickerson and Tony Rodriguez. Mike and Tony are old acquaintances of Bill; a few years back, in Vietnam, they were in the same platoon. They also became opposed parties in a court martial - for a reason that Bill never explained to Martha. What happened in Vietnam, and what is the reason for the presence of Mike and Tony?" From the IMDB description. Filmmaker Brian DePalma later remade the same source material into his film "Casualties Of War". Also, there appear to be releases of this film in France and Spain and talk of an American release in 2011, but I can't find a region 1 DVD copy.

8. Candy Mountain (1987)- Starring Kevin J. O'Connor as a musician trying to track down a legendary guitar maker, "Candy Mountain" has been a cult favorite for years now, fitting into the moody, punk rock aesthetic made fashionable by Jim Jarmusch and the aforementioned Paul Morrissey. Directed by indie legend Robert Frank, this film is available on YouTube. The reactions- like all cult products- are wildly divisive.

9. Darker Than Amber (1972)- Crime novelist John MacDonald and is fictional protagonist Travis McGee make their first appearance on-screen here as Rod Taykor embodies the "savage consultant" in a film that seems to blend criminal bodybuilders and Jane Russell in one sun-baked noir tale. Reviews of this film have been high, citing two different versions out there- one a cut apart TV version and the other an uncut, much more violent vision. I'm a fan of any 70's noir and this one sounds like malevolent fun.

10. Spermula (1976)- If anyone's still reading... google it. Just google it.