Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.7

Dunkirk

As he's so masterly done since his debut feature almost twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan's penchant for the manipulation of time features prominently in his WWII feature, "Dunkirk". Literally suspending the rigors of war across three distinct and overlapping timelines (land, sea and air), it's a technical gambit that, in other hands, could be problematic. However, in Nolan's radical conceptualization, "Dunkirk" is essentially a silent film with sporadic bursts of dialogue that imposes the idea of time being the strictest enemy against his relatively anonymous cast of men desperately running away (and towards) the waning vestiges of combat. Refusing to carve out a central figure of empathy (although Tom Hardy's ace fighter pilot comes the closest thing to a hero the film has, including a momentous bow), "Dunkirk" is even more radical for the way it drops us in the midst of war and allows us to experience the waves of anger, desperation, intelligence, cowardice and loyalty that ebbs and flows over its young men facing a dark hour of the war. I find this more honest and revealing than so many other war films that impose a facade of heroism on its characters. In a war that spanned so many years and re-wrote both the internal and external geography of so many men, women and landscapes, "Dunkirk" feels all the more courageous.


Atomic Blonde

Suckered into this twisty, fluorescent thriller because of the trailers featuring a butt kicking Charlize Theron is just one of the many pleasures of David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde". Technically, the film is pretty spectacular. And if spy thrillers derived from a pulpy graphic novel featuring the skulduggery of Berlin's waning Cold war days, then its even better. Highly enjoyable.


A Ghost Story

As a David Lowery devotee- from his early experimental short films to the languid, country-fried fatal romanticism of his masterpiece "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"- I've willfully absorbed everything he's done. Yet, with his latest film "A Ghost Story", he leaves me wanting for the first time. When it focuses on the patient yearning between young couple Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, it soars. Watch as Mara listens to Dark Rooms "I Get Overwhelmed" and the way her eyes and face subtly hold back the ruptures of emotion that threaten to overtake her. When the film wanders into a ponderous meditation on time and the residual emotions of those left behind (i.e. the now infamous image of Casey Affleck wearing a bed sheet with holes for the eyes), it becomes woefully pretentious and strained. I understand the grand gestures filmmaker Lowery was reaching for, but it mostly left me cold.


First Kill

Low grade thriller with Bruce Willis. At the very least, it's one of the better things director Steven Miller has done. Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now





Thursday, August 03, 2017

Cinema Obscura: Demons (aka Shura)

Toshio Matsumoto's follow-up to his avant-garde-shot-across-the-bow "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) was this bleak, nocturnal samurai revenge epic titled "Demons". Released in 1971, "Demons" couldn't be more different than that debut feature. Where that earlier film seemed to exist as a fly-on-the-wall experiment- blending Godardian nouvelle vague and queer cinema theatrics into a student film like adrenaline rush- "Demons" is measured and even patient at times, wallowing in its inky black and white images as if Akira Kurosawa wanted to get very dark....literally and figuratively. But this patience is often shattered by shocking acts of violence. Always a fan of the spurting squib effect, Matsumoto and "Demons" uses the sword and its devastating impact on the human body to angry effect. Throat slashing and quick swipes to the chest are felt and experienced quite unlike any other samurai film. And then there's the twisting Shakespearean acts of deceit and revenge that ultimately take hold and push the film's unrepentant ronin Gengobei (Katsuo Nakamura) farther and farther into the darkness. "Demons" may be a sophomore film for a director who left behind only four feature titles, but it places Matsumoto in the hallowed echelon of Japanese New Wave directors who not only successfully regurgitated an emblematic moment of their nation's history, but managed to graft something exciting onto the shadows of the past as well.

And shadowy may be the best description for "Demons". Without a hint of daylight observed once during the entire film, "Demons" is a film whose characters exist in a netherworld or purgatory. Gengobei himself is a lost samurai, devoid of his rightful place serving his master and involved with a geisha named Koman (Yasuko Sanjo). When Gengobei comes into possession of money that will buy back his rightful place in the ronin contingency, Koman spins an elaborate charade to rob him along with her lover Sangoro (Juro Kara). Unwittingly setting in motion a series of violent confrontations, double-crosses and seething retribution, "Demons" obliges its dark aesthetic by pulling no punches in its savagery. Just witness what fate Matsumoto (and writer Nanboku Tsuruya whose play the film is based on) hold for even the most innocent of children.

Choosing to call itself "Demons" seems perfectly apt. The opening scene of the film observes a group of people running through the darkness carrying lanterns..... discombulated bodies swallowed up by the night as the only thing visible are the lanterns bobbing and weaving as they move. This eerie yet calculated image sets the tone for a film that refuses to give light to anyone. It's as if everyone involved has already sunk into the netherworld, becoming remorseless carbon copies of themselves. Demons. And like his transvestite youngsters in "Funeral Parade of Roses", they're living a life they've accepted on the margins of reality. It may not be pretty, but at least its true to them.






Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.6

Baby Driver


Billed as the best heist/getaway movie since.... well name any one from the past 25 years and that's the reception being given Edgar Wright's latest adenalized feature, "Baby Driver". It's also a musical, of sorts, combining an impressive swath of pop/rock/hip hop and classical tunes against a violent narrative of bank robbers and lonely getaway drivers in the concrete jungle of Atlanta. It's still not a very good movie, despite all those things just mentioned. Any pleasures to be gained from Wright's finger snap editing of image and musical notes is overwhelmingly drowned out by monotone characters, cheap diversions of the crime genre and a sadistically overwrought final third.



Endless Poetry

A singular vision from a singular filmmaker like Jodorowsky. Full review on Dallas Film Now.



The Little Hours

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours owes much to the comedy of Monty Python or the sanctimonious subversion of Luis Bunuel and Pasolini. Loosely based on a couple of stories from “The Decameron,” it doesn’t make much sense to try and make literal connections. The film is its own beast. Deftly paced and breathlessly acted by all involved (especially a late appearance by Fred Armisen that had me in stitches), it’s a film that understands its purpose of fully formed characters and well designed situational laughs.Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now.



Thursday, July 06, 2017

If I Programmed a Film Festival #5

Haven't done one of these in quite a while. The mood has struck.



The Itsamadmadblog Film Festival, July 2017 edition

Day 1


Opening Night Premier: "A Ghost Story" (2017), directed by Texas native David Lowery


Regional Filmmaking Feature: "Bomb City" (2017), directed by Jameson Brooks


The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Castle of Sand" (1974)


Midnight Madness feature: "Family Portraits" (2003), directed by Douglas Buck


Day 2

Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "Deathwatch" (1980), directed by Bertrand Tavernier


Premiers day:

"Wind River" (2017), directed by Taylor Sheridan

"GoodTime" (2017), directed by the Safdie Brothers

"You Were Never Really Here" (2017), directed by Lynn Ramsey


Regional Filmmaking feature: "A Teacher" (2013), directed by Hannah Fidell


The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Writthing Tongue" (1982)


Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "Until the End of the World" (1991), by Wim Wenders


Midnight Madness: "Inside" (2007), directed by Julian Maury and Alexandro Bustillo



Day 3


The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "Village of 8 Gravestones"


"In the Fade" (2017), directed by Fatih Akin


Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "France, Inc" (1973), directed by Alain Corneau


The Auteur Series, Japanese Master edition featuring Yoshitaro Nomura: "The Incident" (1978)


Quasi science fiction from Europe series: "On the Silver Globe" (1988), restored edition directed by Andrzej Zulawski


"Call Me By Your Name" (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino

"Radiance" (2017), directed by Naomi Kawase



Closing Night Film: 70 MM presentation of "Dunkirk" (2017) with Christopher Nolan in attendance








Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.5

It Comes At Night

After the flairs of rough-hewn brilliance that occasionally bubbled to the surface in Trey Edward Shults' debut feature "Krisha", it shouldn't be a complete surprise his sophomore effort is so there as well. What is tantamount in "It Comes At Night" is the elongation of tension throughout the entire film, sustained by Shults' perfect accentuation of camera movement and lighting (which at times feels like its lit only by candlelight and lantern). Technical chops aside, "It Comes At Night" is also a pregnant, psychologically taut thriller that posits the idea of mankind's Armageddon as rendered through two sets of families in an isolated part of the country learning to trust, compromise and simply live together as an undefined sickness ravages the unlucky ones. Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott and Kelvin Harrison Jr. all give tremendous and tightly screwed performances. At one point towards the end, I found myself holding my breath as the consequences on screen tumble towards an inevitable outcome of confusion and violence. It's quite unlike any end-of-the-world scenario imagined by Hollywood in some time which makes it all the more joyful to behold.


Rough Night 

As an example of modern comedy- i.e. driven strictly by improvisational editing/acting and raunchy for the sake of raunchiness- Lucia Aniello's "Rough Night" is a typical sample. As anything more transcendental or original, it fails miserably. There are moments of spark, but overall its simply a gender twist on the inane, moronic bro comedies that have been invading the landscape since the wrath of Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips.


The Hero 


Full review at Dallas Film Now


Wonder Woman


As someone pretty uninformed on the dense histories and backstories of the DC (or hell ANY comic book franchise monikor), I can't speak to the relevancy to Patti Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" adaptation, but I can say it jostled and ravaged my senses quite unlike any recent comic book movie, made all the more urgent by its upheaval of the cultural and feminist blockades that tried to tear it down (a MAN buying a ticket to an all female screening than crying about reverse discrimination for one). The film does follow a formulaic narrative complete with expensive CGI battle at the end, but "Wonder Woman" packed more gusto and feeling into the moment leading up to that denouement better than most tentpole films. And wow the "Battle for No Man's Land" sequence is just thrilling stuff.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

On "The Lost City of Z"

In the films of James Gray, nothing comes easy. Survival is often sought at a high price. Walloped in deep shadow.... or inky blacks of a midnight trainyard.... or the halcyon golden of a cramped New York City tenement... or especially in the oppressive and humid jungles of South America, his films are a litmus test for the human experience. In his latest film, "The Lost City of Z" (adapted from the book of the same name by David Grann), his survivalist instinct manifests itself in a literal uncharted adventure that sees British officer Col. Percy Fawcett braving the depths of the Amazonian jungle and getting lost both in body and spirit. Gorgeously framed and edited, impeccably acted and featuring a classicism whose power is often overwhelming, I find it hard to believe Gray can ever top himself after seeing one of his films. "The Immigrant" (2014), though it bombed theatrically and at festivals, was a masterpiece of fragility and trapped emotions in the visage of Marion Cotillard's single immigrant female status. I love that film with no bounds. And now, "The Lost City of Z" has made me love something even more rabidly.


As Col. Fawcett, Charlie Hunnam plays the explorer with a glacial muscularity, rarely belying the fear or apprehension he has with each successive visit to the Amazon jungle. Initially sent there to map out the terrain for a British geographical society, he begins to hear whispers of a lost magical city. He does see clues- pottery and elaborately carved statues of rocks- that are revealed to him like glimmers from God above before they're tragically taken away from him, either through natural causes or weak willed human stupidity. Three visits to the jungle in all, the final embarked upon with his growing son that has disastrous consequences Also along for most of the ride is his exacting aide, Henry Costin (played to perfection by a quiet, interior Robert Pattinson). Together, the duo represent explorers with intelligence, wit and careful consideration of their unknown surroundings.

Dotted with Rudyard Kipling or Robert Louis Stevenson anecdotes of native violence- one in which features a nasty spill into a piranha infest river- Gray overrides these random conflicts of culture with more fraternal moments, such as when one of the population the explorers meet drops a colored liquid into the water and fish slowly pop to the surface, allowing him to grab a few for supper. In seconds, the fish resume their underwater crawl, causing Costin to remark how amazing it is for these people to only take what they need and nothing more. It's these moments of gentle observation that feel so true and educational that sets "The Lost City of Z" apart from other films of its ilk. More low-key than any standard Hollywood production, its a film whose beauty is unassuming and it sneaks up on you.

Part of that sneaking beauty lies also in the performance of Sienna Miller as Fawcett's dutiful and understanding wife. Left at home with their kids... more years apart than together it seems.... her role as Nina stands out among the boy crew. Soft when necessary and strikingly hard when pressed, Gray chooses to end the film focusing on her. It's a brave move. After spending so much time with Fawcett and his compulsive trips to the jungle in search of a possibly imaginative place, Nina becomes just as lost and mentally forlorn as her husband. Wandering off into an imagined jungle of her own, Gray seems to be saying that the greatest sacrifice was not the adventure itself, but the person who allowed the adventurer to test the fate of an unforgiving environment at the expense of his loved ones. It's a sobering idea and yet another achingly perfect finale to a James Gray effort.