Sunday, August 28, 2016

What's In the Netflix Queue #40

1. The White Darkness (2002)- Low budget auteur Richard Stanley's 'documentary' about voodoo doctors. I put a ton of his available in the queue a year ago and it's just now coming around. I was underwhelmed by Stanley's "Hardware" but recognize his cult status.

2. Rewind This! (2013)- Doc about VHS movies that got some pretty healthy talk a few years back from old fogies like myself who remember wandering the aisles of video stores in their childhood.

3. The Color of Time (2010)- Hmm, maybe because it stars Mila Kunis this one is here.

4. Oliver Twist (2005)- One of only two Polanski films I haven't seen.... the other being his obscure "What?" from 1972 that I'll be watching around the same time as this one. His take on the Dickens classic.

5. Plus One (2011)- Greek director Denis Iliadis did the remake to "Last House On the Left" a few years back and while his films reek of street-level 'degeneraism' (see his 2004 film "Hardcore"), I have to see everything available by a filmmaker when I get it in my head to do so.

6. Les Cousins (1958)- Early Chabrol that I feel like I've seen, yet somehow I don't remember a thing about. Time to rectify.

7. The Trip To Italy (2014)- Michael Winterbottom's follow-up to the immensely entertaining "The Trip".

8. Four Sons (1928)- Continuing on my appreciation of every John Ford film available. Check back sometime in 2017, probably, for a long post since he made about 500 films.

9. The Cut (2015)- Fatih Akin burst onto my radar when I saw his 2004 masterpiece "Head-On", but each film has been concurrently underwhelming for me. Perhaps this one will change my perception.

10.  H-Man (1958)- From the imdb description:  While investigating the mysterious disappearance of a low-level drug runner, Tokyo police discover that a race of radioactive flesh-eating creatures are emerging from the sewers and attacking civilians. Set in the criminal underground of 1950s-era Tokyo, this effort from B-movie maven Ishiro Honda is an obscure precursor to sci-fi noirs like Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.7


James Schamus' adaptation of Philip Roth's novel strives to encapsulate the post World War II generation's swirling mass of emotions which includes the disdain for parental over-indulgence, the groping for expected spiritual (non) identity, and youthful sexual abandon. Lofty ideas, indeed, and "Indignation" hits the mark and more. As young Marcus, Logan Lerman is spectacular as the Jewish boy swimming against the grain at a prestigious Ohio college, whose life becomes even more confused when he meets beautiful (and non Jewish) Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and they begin dating. College is certainly about new experiences, new attitudes and finding oneself, but "Indignation" soon charts the upheaval of conflicting traditional versus progressive ideas and actions in a carefully modulated manner. Not only does Marcus not understand the ways of love, but his very ideals come under insidious attack from the school's dean (Tracy Letts), none moreso than a long give-and-take scene between the two that proves talk in cinema can be just as tense as anything else. "Indignation" is verbose, powerful, moving and, ultimately, heartbreaking in the way lives are seismically altered by a few words. One of the year's best films.

Blood Father

Now this is what summer entertainment should be. And maybe a tiny morsel of resurgence for Mel Gibson. Full review on Dallas Film Now.

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Kind of feel old after watching this one. Video game spectacle as fodder. And I didn't really understand a lick of what was going on. Review on Dallas Film Now.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Space Between: How Jia Zhangke Sees the World

There are a select few directors whose work is porous with a distinctive milieu. Martin Scorsese and New York City. Richard Linklater with Texas. Victor Nunez with Florida. A good majority of their films frame a narrative around the living, breathing atmosphere of a specific region with breathtaking results. Yet, even fewer filmmakers absorb their city and make it a wondrous extra, at times upstaging the flesh and blood people inhabiting it. I'm thinking of Thom Andersen with Los Angeles.... a city so cannibalized by Hollywood that it takes a dirge-like documentarian to bring out its real ghosts and phantoms through stationary shots of the city's abandoned architecture. In both "Los Angeles Plays Itself" and "Get Out of the Car", Andersen shows us a Los Angeles seen everyday on the big screen but rarely seen.

The same goes for Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. His mixture of hybrid documentaries and fictional efforts rarely venture outside of his own China (or even his hometown province) and the devastating advancement of civilization at the cost of its people is never far removed from the central idea. Specifically, four documentary films including "Dong", "Useless", "I Wish I Knew" and the masterpiece "24 City", could more accurately be called postcards of a deteriorating city. Even when he chooses an original idea, such as the listless inhabitants of a theme park in "The World" or following the impetuous teens of "Unknown Pleasures", there's China and its corners, peeling paint and bustling streets barely contained behind his speaking actors threatening to high-jack the entire thing. Watching the edges of the frame can often be more entertaining in a Jia Zhangke film than anything else.

"Dong" (2006) begins Zhangke's fascination with the documentary form, although its feathery relationship with the genre is tenuous at best. Following Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong as he initiates several of his pieces, Zhangke ultimately shifts the perspective from a typical painter's bio to the way Xiaodong sees the landscape around him. Much more attention is paid to Dong as he stumbles through the apocalyptic brick and mortar remnants of the Three Gorges Dam- a setting also explored in his film "Still Life" released the same year- than celebrating the piece of artwork created. Zhangke's camera becomes fixated on the tanned, weary-faced men posing for Dong on the edge of a concrete barrier that resembles the idyllic vista of Jean Luc Godard's "Contempt" more than a hollowed out section of Earth. We follow Dong to Bangkok where he paints a scantily clad woman as she lies, suggestively, like a Sleeping Beauty. Then its back to the Three Gorges area where Dong and Zhangke visit with the family of one of the men who posed for him earlier as they deal with his death due to an unspecified accident. In its short (66 minute) running time, "Dong" becomes an evocative bio of the land rather than the person. It's a bold move for a film named after the person.

In "Useless" (2007), the same digressive attitude is taken. Ostensibly about a female fashion designer of earthy and wild styles, it takes about 25 minutes before Zhangke even decides to include her in the film. The first half is full of patient lateral pans around and across concrete beams as an assembly line toils away at creating the clothes. Exterior shots of the province of Guangzhoa and the daily, minuscule activities of its people inform portions of the middle half and then, finally, Zhangke focuses on Ma Ke, the designer/artist whose line of clothing evokes the film's title. Not quite as powerful as "Dong" in its meditative rhythms, "Useless" does expand Jia's sense of time and place over subject. The best parts of the film lie in the blank expressions of the factory workers as they barely notice the camera penetrating and capturing the lived-in spaces around them.

Rounding out his triptych, "24 City" (2008) is a damning critique of society-as-ghosts. Once a sprawling, mammoth factory known as Factory 24, urban revitalization and 'progress' sees the Chengdu structure being torn down to build a series of high rise condos and mixed-usage business. Part talking head interviews with people who worked in the factory or shared joyous moments there with family members, Zhangke's film is an overwhelming snapshot of time and place whose forward movement feels like a slap-in-the-face. Alternating between carefully timed tracking shots, lateral pans out to the city and powerful stationary shots as even the huge letters of the factory are sent tumbling to the ground, "24 City"- like Thom Andersen's films mentioned earlier- becomes a bittersweet portrait of a city in flux. Music and image marry with quiet and unsuspecting grace, such as the melancholy way an older man slowly makes his way around a worker's room and Zhangke's camera almost floats along the ceiling, simply observing the process. It's a scene that doesn't have any ancillary meaning, but it speaks volumes about the angelic quality Zhangke holds for these people and their crumbling exteriors.

In "Useless" Ma Ke's fashion show in Paris is shown briefly at the end. Instead of the typical runway with models sauntering up and down, a huge curtain drops and all the models are wearing her clothes, perched ever so methodically on lighted pillars placed strategically around the room. The patrons simply walk around and look up at them. It's this interactive idea of looking and observing that informs all of Zhangke's work. China is the model and I don't get the sense Zhangke is going to stop observing anytime soon.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Grand Canyons: Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love"

It's telling of the parabolic nature of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" that the specified non-believer of the couple (Gerard Depardieu basically playing himself) is the one eventually shown the spiritual majesties of the other side. Guffawing and obese, he's been dragged to Death Valley by his ex-wife (Isabelle Huppert also playing a variation of herself) in the hopes of reconnecting with the dead spirit of their deceased son. For the first two-thirds of the film, "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of this middle-aged couple, divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind.

Opening with a long steadicam shot that simply follows behind Huppert as she walks to her motel room across a winding sidewalk, "Valley of Love", doesn't get any more urgent after Gerard (Depardieu) arrives. This same unbroken, unhurried camera movement is duplicated later in the film, reversed to follow Gerard through the carpeted hallways of their motel and eventually outside to enjoy a smoke. The couple dine together, spend time at the motel pool (where Depardieu gets recognized by a man and then insults him by signing his autograph request with Robert DeNiro's name) and travel to select locations in the Valley where they await a sign from their son who committed suicide years ago and then promised to return on the given dates. The couple re-read their son's cryptic letters. They ponder on what type of person he really was, as both confess they didn't really know him after all. This lamentation of a child lost and a marriage imploded hang over the first half of the film. Completely devoid of fashionable performances, both Huppert and Depardieu exert a veteran calm that not only plays right into their roles as recognizable French faces lost in America, but adds gravity to the weary and low-key atmosphere of the entire film. Then, sudden unexplained events occur... once right after the aforementioned long shot that follows Depardieu outside Huppert's motel room window and the second at the very end.... and "Valley of Love" turns into something more than the study of a couple hoping, searching for answers and ultimately doubting their marital time together. 

The French are known for their penchant to fly outside the boundaries of reality-based cinema. Where "Valley of Love" succeeds in its metaphysical nature and other recent examples have failed miserably (such as Pascal Ferran's abysmal "Bird People"), a majority of the credit has to go to the methodical way Nicloux builds a sense of mounting frustration between Depardieu and Huppert. She calls him fat and he replies that, "yes, he knows he is". They are endlessly surrounded by clueless tourists or the oddball outcast who seems right at home on a scorched patch of earth yelling at televised baseball games in the motel restaurant. Life, love, habits and their own patience has run out with each other over the years. All of this is made candidly tactile throughout the first half of "Valley of Love" so that when narrative (and our own disbelief) about why they're there together begins to take shape, it washes over you with modulated force. Maybe there is something there or maybe it's all in the minds of grieving parents who simply begin to project their desires onto the blank canvas of Death Valley. Either way, "Valley of Love" proves to be a rewarding, evocative masterpiece.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, Sweaty Summer Edition

1. Camp XRay (2014)- Otherwise known as the film where Kristen Stewart emerged into the lauded young actress she's become over the last 3-4 years, culminating with the cover of "Film Comment" this month. She's good here and all, but there's still a hint of her emo-scowl and the film suffers from a bit of staginess.

2. The Infilitrator (2016)- Grimy and gritty undercover drug saga that manages to remain highly entertaining despite its been-there-done-that attitude and a relatively low-key performance from Bryan Cranston. The best part of it, though, is the casting of several unknowns in supporting character roles that not only represent the electric funkiness of mid-80's drug dealers, but emit a certain hollow eyed electricity found in the 70's films of the great Sidney Lumet.

3. Ryuzu and His Seven Henchmen (2015)- Takeshi Kitano's comedy, if it actually received some type of release outside of the random Asian film festival last year, would probably be compared to a Hollywood film like "Old Dogs"- that is paychecks for grey haired Hollywood stars a bit out of synch with the younger generation. Here, Kitano recruits a who's who of Asian film baddies of the 60's and 70's and has them reunite as "old farts" forming their old 'yakuza' gang to take on the new corporate sized gangsters of the neighborhood. Neither deconstructive of the genre or all that reflective, it does echo back to Kitano's sketch comedy style and probably only remains interesting for Kitano purists such as myself.

4. The Purge Election Year (2016)- I typically try and stay neutral in my communion of film and politics, but this film (and the entire trilogy) is a repellent example of a fictional work that contributes nothing but fuel to the current rhetoric of hatred, violence and divisiveness sweeping the globe.

5. The Professor (1986)- Been looking for this one for years. Guisuippe Tornatore's debut film stars Ben Gazzara as a mafia chief who rises to prominence behind bars and then takes control of the Naples 'cammorista' upon escaping. Lots of events and facts are compressed into almost 3 hours (culled from the original length of 5-6 hours as an intended TV miniseries) and it does feel long in the tooth at times, but its stark and ugly representation of violence and the role of Laura del Sol as the sister who actually runs things are inspired bits of narrative. It's also interesting in the way "The Professor" almost subverts the role of Gazzara into a secondary background character. He's the star and it's his film, yet he remains a deflected personality in this sprawling world of corruption, shadowy orders and political subterfuge.

6. Hello, My Name Is Doris (2016)- Sally Field is quite amazing in Michael Showalter's slightly berzerk little comedy about a 70'ish woman falling in love with her early 30's aged boss... how about that nifty age reversal for a comedy? Keeping some of its darker elements just at the edges (i.e. stalkerish tendencies) the film is a breezy 90 minutes. Plus it really makes me want a Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winter cd.

7. Cymbeline (2014)- Michael Almyreda is at it again, updating Shakespeare into a modern environment. Anachronistic and all, this one pits the bard's tale of deception, familial jealousy and star-crossed lovers into the world of biker meth dealer gangs and hipsters. It is quite fun to hear Dakota Johnson spewing Shakespeare.

8. Angel Face (1952)- Slight film noir about a young girl (Jean Simmons) and ambulance driver (Robert Mitchum) who fall in love amidst the death of her parents. Otto Preminger directs with a sure hand.

9. Heat and Sunlight (1987)- Coming off like a bad Henry Jaglom or Jon Jost, Rob Nilsson's surprising Sundance winnner reeks of everything pretentious and boring about early American independent cinema. Black and white photography. Self absorbed lovers fighting through their bouts of denial, self-doubt and solipsism. A tendency to carry on scenes way longer than patience allows. I suppose it;s early Sundance award is more about the time and place than the actual effort.

10. The Happiest Girl In the World (2009)- Radu Juda's film "Aferim!" has been one of the joys of film this year, and this sophomore feature length effort falls more in line with the typical traits of Romanian cinema. After a girl wins a car by sending in juice bottle caps, she's invited to the city to film a commercial. That's only the mind-numbing beginning of a day that sees her parents fight over the eventual financial windfall of selling the car, the pressing demands of a film crew who want the perfect commercial and an oppressive heat wave striking the city. To say the least, its one of the more ironic titles in recent film.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.6

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film is a synth-infused mood piece whose narrative has strayed even farther and loopier than even the rudimentary progression of "Only God Forgives". Parceled out like a glam-pop music video with bits of David Lynch dreaminess tossed in for good measure, ultimately, "The Neon Demon" suffers from a wallop of rote ideas and well tread commentary. We get it. The Los Angeles fashion/model scene is cannibalistic and treacherous. As the film winds down to its conclusion, all I could stop thinking about is "where the hell is that house with the swimming pool and why hasn't it been featured more prominently in an L.A. film before?" I'm sure Refin wanted more reactive passion than that from his film.

Hunt For the Wilderpeople

I can think of a handful of films in which a young boy is pitted against a curmudgeonly old man and, slowly, they not only form a bond but come to resemble something close to a family. That formula is followed here in Taika Waititi's comedy, "Hunt For the Wilderpeople" and it succeeds thanks to the wonderfully etched relationship between newcomer Julian Dennison and Sam Neill, as well as Waititi's acerbic sense of editing and perfectly timed laughs. The film also eschews laughing "at" something (such as those zany New Zealand bush folk) and imparts a generous sense of zaniness all around.