Thursday, November 07, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.6

The Current War

Broaching a subject matter close to my heart (just try and tear me away from gilded age history books and my 4 different Tesla biographies), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "The Current War" is a fleet-footed and propulsive tear through the divisive birth of modern electricity and the men who harnessed its infancy. Each character- Edison played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tesla by Nicholas Hoult and Westinghouse by Michael Shannon- is given equal weight as each man delineates his earnestness to the cause, a couple led by their intelligent mechanical brains and the other through his keen awareness of currents as currency. With a pervasively restless camera and a sharp script that breezes through history while still finding time to shine on the ruminative moments of its prescient world-builders, "The Current War" is also a complete surprise because of its rumored checkered history For a film that languished on the shelf for more than a year, Gomez-Rejon's work emerges unscathed as a genuinely brash resurrected entertainment. It also features a killer soundtrack by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi.


Although it's not quite a horror film, one of the most horrific moments of the year on-screen happens in Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" as a set of crazed-white eyes slowly peers up from the darkness from a set of basement level steps, igniting a child's nightmarish imagination and sending the second half of the film into a frenzy of drastic action and numbing consequence. It's what Joon Ho does best- wringing recognizable genres until they twist into a morass of social commentary and obfuscated styles. What begins as ant act of greedy infiltration by a lower class family into the personal spaces of the upper class starts out simply enough before the screws are tightened and every shot, feeling and mood is controlled masterfully by Joon Ho. There are stretches in this film where I held my breath for what seemed like an eternity, hoping I'd soon be given permission to breathe. Caustically funny and whip-smart tense, "Parasite" is a master firing on all cylinders.


Kantemir Balagov's World War II drama doesn't deal with the fighting itself, but the lacerating impacts that linger long after the war has ended. Young Iya (Viktoriya Miroschnichenko) stumbles through post war Leningrad as a nurse, still seeing the effects of war on her patients and struggling with her own PTSD disorder wherein her body locks up and she goes comatose. Earning the nickname Beanpole for her unusual feminine height, her terrible mistake during one of these freezed emotional states early on in the film sets the stage for a bleak relationship with her best friend (Vasilia Perelygina) in which the moral stakes of both women are pushed to the brink of normalcy. Deliberately paced and effectively acted, "Beanpole" is probably most remarkable for taking a harrowing subject and creating an almost somnambulist drama where high emotions are registered in blank stares and the seething hatred of the upper class towards the lower class is shrouded in politely jagged dinner conversation. It's a film I admired more than fully liked, but I look forward to whatever Balagov does next. 

Motherless Brooklyn

I have to begin by asking why it's taken someone 20 years to allow actor Edward Norton to write and direct again after his sweetly affectionate and witty debut film "Keeping the Faith". I fell in love upon seeing it in the theater all those years ago and it remains one of the best films of the 90's. A far cry in mood and tone than that previous ode to Lubitsch-like romance-comedy, his latest film, "Motherless Brooklyn" still retains his affection for people and relationships even when said relationships involve extortion, bribery, corruption and murder in 50's set New York where the sky's the limit for powerful men slicing up chunks of the city. Trying to unravel the mystery is Lionel (Norton), the adopted associate of a slain snooper (Bruce Willis) whose nose gets them all involved in some hefty affairs. Complicating maters is Lionel's tourette's disorder, which serves more as a compass for the nervousness he feels when things get heady, calmed only in moments after Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who may or may not be fully involved in the affair he's investigating. While the narrative of "Motherless Brooklyn" ultimately leans into noir-tinged familiarity, what's not pedestrian is Norton's supreme handling of the film's pace and composure. Lots of secondary characters (played by famous faces from Willem DaFoe to Michael K. Williams) provide a sprawling canvas of depth, but they're never allowed to overwhelm the carefully constructed atmosphere. Attuned to the beauty of the world around his concrete-bound characters, Norton continually cuts to things around them as they talk, such as golden blades of grass or the sun-lit dusted items on a bedroom dresser. For a film often caught inside the scrambled head of a man desperately trying to fit together the disjointed pieces, "Motherless Brooklyn" is a magnificently contemplative work.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Shock and Awe: Images From Some Good and Not So Good Halloween Viewing

Mirror, Mirror (1990)

Rainbow Harvest is the main reason to see "Mirror, Mirror", a 1991 horror effort about a mirror that houses the gateway to some murderous demons. The real horror here is that Harvest effectively vanished from Hollywood after this film (although some say she still works as an editor in television?)

Paperhouse (1989)

The best chiller I've watched so far this October is Bernard Rose's "Paperhouse". More of an atmospheric coming-of-age fantasy than a horror film (and oh boy did the 80's do those better than any other), the film manages to be terrifying one minute and then emotionally draining the next as children try and make sense of senseless adolescent growing pains.

Book of Blood (2009)

Based on a Clive Barker story, "Book of Blood" mixes together alot of horror elements- paranormal investigation, body horror, metaphysical excess- and blends them into a fairly compelling tale that's also quite gory. It also features a denouement that's pretty great considering how many years we've been telling ghost stories. I've never seen one spitball the phenomenon like this one.

Witchboard (1986) 

I think there's like 78 more of these "Witchboard" films and after seeing the first, I can't bring myself to watch anymore. But hey, Tawny Kitaen.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Inner Space- On "Ad Astra"

Even though it resides in a loopy science fiction template that features ghost ships, nerve-jangling space walks and knife fights inside a cockpit, James Gray's "Ad Astra" is a lot closer to his morose studies of male psychosis and obsessive choices than it first appears. In fact, it makes for a nice double feature with his previous masterpiece "The Lost City of Z" in which pioneers of terrain and courage venture farther out into the unknown than anyone before them. In "Ad Astra", that explorer is astronaut Brad Pitt, chosen to travel to Mars (a planet that houses the last stable outpost of humanity in near future of colonization) in order to hopefully coax his lost father (also an astronaut) to stop sending chaotic micro bursts of energy from a failed mission decades ago. I know, it does preposterous when explained, but Gray manages to create a moody and introspective work of art that challenges science fiction conventions in its quiet remorselessness.

In between the bursts of action- probably maintained to keep the interest of those audience goers enticed into the theater looking for the spectacle of a big budget Star Trek- "Ad Astra" is especially intense in its introspection. From the voice-overs of Pitt that question everything from his masculinity to his accepted mission, "Ad Astra" lives in the margins of second guessing. It's also a film that lingers on choices. The sadness of watching a nonfunctioning life vessel slowly melt away into space or the vastness of black that engulfs a floating figure moment later are given much more prominence than other films that deal with characters in space.

Director Gray has been creating impressionistic films for more than two decades now and while "Ad Astra" is certainly his most adventurous trip to (inner) space, it's also a complimentary work that falls into his glorious landscape of psychological exploration.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.5

Official Secrets

Filmmaker Gavin Hood's leftist politics have finally found a shrewd, crackling home in this tale of a British whistle-blower (Keira Knightley) and the investigative/legal melee that erupts around her after she leaks a damning classified document to the press. I can't say it surprises me that the British government was just as morally corrupt and blinded with land-grab avarice as the U.S. in proclaiming a war against Iraq, but "Official Secrets" does maintain some levels of genuine intrigue even if we know how the based-on-true-events eventually plays out. Half investigative procedural as the Observer staff (strong performances by Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode and Matt Smith) stagger to fit the pieces together to mold a believable story and half moral legal drama as Knightley deals with the personal consequences of her stubbornly realized actions (including the presence of a great Ralph Fiennes as her lawyer), the film juggles all of this with confidence, even if the narrative beats feel a bit hemmed from the start. Regardless, it's a film that rewards the viewer with intelligent conversations and mounting drama without patronizing.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Paul Collaizo's "Brittany Runs a Marathon" was snapped up by Amazon Studios fresh out of this year's Sundance, and it fits their middle-of-the-road expectations perfectly. It's not a bad film, by any means, it's just a safe, audience-friendly slice of self-help intervention that breaks no rules or extends beyond its pat circumstances. As the woman who decides to change her life and begin running, Jillian Bell is admirable, flashing streaks of warm humanity within a narrative that rarely paints outside the lines and its cast of secondary characters (such as Michaela Watkins) often threaten to become more interesting than anything else. 

The Goldfinch

Far from the disaster that's been plastered on this film for several weeks now, John Crowley's "The Goldfinch" is more of a gilded whimper than anything else. Adapted from a well loved novel of the same name, the film hints at greatness through the machinations of a teenager's growth into adulthood after a shocking act of violence alters his course. Like life itself, "The Goldfinch" is messy with subplot and supporting characters..... replete with missed connections, lost attachments and personal tragedies... that dot the landscape of his lost compass path. Sometimes, this jagged journey can be mythical and immensely moving. Unfortunately, the journey here feels much too earnest to allow anything to sink into one's bones. Performances by Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, especially, feel overly internalized and oddly suffocating. Only when the film breaks away from their posh New York lifestyle and journeys to the desperate ends of the earth (literally a decrepit housing division at the edge of Las Vegas) does it ever really come alive with conflicted characters and energized emotions (courtesy of young Oakes Fegley and Finn Wolfhard). 

Friday, September 06, 2019

Out of the Past: On "Union Station"

One of my favorite chase scenes in all of cinema resides in William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). No, it's not the very muscular and chaotically choreographed car chase under the subway system, but a game of cat-and-mouse-hide-and-seek that pits Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his fleet-footed attempt in keeping up with his target (Fernando Rey) on the hectic streets and (eventual) busy New York subway system. It's a masterclass set-piece of editing and sound that strikes at the heart of two people trying to out duel each other.

So imagine how crestfallen I was- and alternatively thrilled- while watching Rudolph Mate's "Union Station" (1950) a few months ago when the same type of criminal versus cop chess appeared in this aces crime thriller. I may need to go back and see if Friedkin lip services Mate's film in any way, but "The French Connection" is undeniably indebted to "Union Station's" crisp, boldly edited chase scene that features a cop following a suspected criminal around and about, ending up on a subway car where the tables are suddenly turned.

In fact, pretty much all of Mate's masterpiece is a brilliant study of bodies in motion and the logistics of men standing, watching, waiting.... something that's been the machismo hallmark of current directors such as Michael Mann and Johnny To for decades now. One of those men standing and watching is William Holden, the cop of the film's train station title who's drawn into a web of tension when a group of kidnapping suspects use his train terminal to do their extortion and bidding. Partnering with the New York police, Holden initially helps them identify the criminals (with the help of beautiful Nancy Olsen), and from that point on, "Union Station" realizes several sequences of paranoid stake-outs, double crosses and electric action scenes that sets the film apart from the rudimentary film noir efforts the film is often associated with. Coming at the beginning of the 50's when noir was beginning to metastasize in other things (i.e. the hard boiled cynicism of Robert Aldrich and Cold War metaphors), "Union Station" is so thrilling for its simplicity and its attention to form. None of this is surprising since the director, Mate, came from the ranks of celebrated Hollywood cinematographers (and had already helmed two highly regarded noir classics "D.O.A." in 1949 and "The Dark Past" in 1948). What is surprising, however, is that "Union Station" is a largely forgotten relic of the noir wave that deserves its place in the pantheon of hard boiled cinema.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

On "Transit"

As stated on this blog before, almost all of filmmaker Christian Petzold's films are about people and places in literal flux. I don't think he's ever broached the subject quite as literally (in title or theme) as he so assuredly does in his latest feature, "Transit". Not only is his lead character Georg (Franz Rogowski) stuck in an amalgam of time that fuses the pervasive fear of German Nationalism encroaching across Europe in the 1940's with today's climate of fear mongering intolerance about immigration, but the people embodying this terrifying space of inquietude are locked in limbo as well, unable to advance one way or the other. Even with the papers of a dead man emboldening his trek across Europe in the hopes of gaining passage to somewhere safer, Georg is a haunting figure in a long hall of mirrors where everyone is seen over and over with the same hopes of salvation. It's a daring and formal enterprise, made all the more searing by Petzold's usual clean aesthetic that refuses to advance the narrative into anything resembling a happy ending.

In it's brisk but packed 100 minute running time, "Transit" gets right to the punch early, unspooling so much information in its first third that it feels like Petzold's most complicated film yet. The aforementioned Georg meets a friend in a bar who asks him to deliver a message to a quasi famous writer stashed away in a local hotel. Dropping us into a Europe where forces of police-attired military units are sweeping across the landscape and rounding up anyone without the proper ID papers, George accepts for the little money offered. Realizing the writer is dead upon arrival, Georg swipes his manuscript and ID and submerges himself to Marseille in hopes of contacting the writer's wife Marie (Paula Beer) and securing transport papers in a town where the oppressive government haven't quite reached yet. Through an unidentified narrator (at least until the final few minutes) and Georg's own improvised persona, "Transit" becomes both a mystery and a political thriller in how it dispenses (and withholds) crucial information until its ready to burst.

Finding the elusive Marie, however, soon becomes a secondary concern to simple survival for Georg. Actually, Marie finds him, running into him on the street several times as she mistakes him from behind thinking he's someone else. This motif of confused identity and amnesiac scope becomes one of the many telling hints of bureaucratic malaise and mask-wearing Petzold chooses to wash across the film.

Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, "Transit" is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from its original intentions of Seghers World War II experiences into the sleek and metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale are today juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear- although some would argue the occupying forces are stronger and more insidious than ever. And, like Petzold's previous film "Phoenix", he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving the inhabitants to pick up the personal pieces in its wake. And like "Phoenix", Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity, it only further solidifies the fact that he's one of the two or three best filmmakers in the world today.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.4


About two-thirds of the way through- and once the film's teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend- "Booksmart" finds its footing and attains something quite terrific. The film's patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood. Just a great film all around.


While the idea of an alternate history story of a young Superman-type kid falling to Earth and being raised by Midwestern farming parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) sounds novel, David Yarovesky's "Brightburn" falters in execution. Relying on one too many horror tropes and scare beats, this is a film that telescopes pretty much every plot twist and drains the life out of (already) cardboard characters. 


Although I wasn't quite prepared for the straight musical narrative Dexter Fletcher unspools in telling the meteoric rise and drug-addled plateau of rock 'n' roll icon Elton John, the fluid camera work and choreography are the best things about the effort. It's when people begin having conversations that the film's weakness becomes glaring. Taron Egerton portrays John with swagger and verve, but its a performance that still comes off as pantomime rather than true character excavation.