Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.3


I've almost forgotten exactly where Yann Demange's "'71" falls in the hectic line of new Jack O'Connell films. And yes, we get it, he's going to be a star. But here, he's asked to do very little besides wheeze and look exhausted the entire film as he plays a British soldier lost behind the slum lines during the Irish "troubles". That's not a knock on him. Substitute anyone in this role and the results would probably be the same. Demange's kinetic, frenzied tale isn't really about this single man, but his unwilling initiation and observance of the constantly shifting politics behind any good country's civil strife. The violence is swift and brutal. The sides, although supposedly clearly drawn, secede into a swamp of uncertainty as undercover cops play both sides, genuinely decent people try to make sense of the conflict and unflinching loyalty- even when one sees that allegiance is damning- coalesce into a muddy portrait of hopelessness. It's a powerful film driven by a simple action film conceit- be superman and get out alive.

It Follows

It may seem rote to attempt a new subversion of the horror genre, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell does just that in his latest film "It Follows". Taking the act of sexual intercourse, which often spells disaster for teens in all those slasher horror movies of yesteryear, is stretched to full length parable here. Often a very vulnerable, short-circuit-head moment for young people (or really anyone of any age), the act of sex is shrouded in guilt, paranoia and complete fear in "It Follows" as "something" begins to stalk poor Jay (Maika Monroe) after having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary). Immediately knocking her out and subduing her, she awakens to his wild story of having to do this to her so "something" would quit stalking him and be transferred to her. In full control of every facet of the film, from its precise camera placement and movement to the moody synth soundtrack, Mitchell has created a deeply unsettling experience that understands the psychology of scare is always more penetrating than the scare itself. In his debut feature, the wonderful "The Myth of the American Sleepover", he perfectly accentuated the universal emotions of suburban teen aimlessness. Though far removed from my own current generational outlook, the film felt true and purposeful, as if he tapped into my own half memories and daydreams of being fifteen again. In "It Follows", the teens from that film could have graduated to these more grown-up acts, still aimless, but now struggling with not only the pangs of young adulthood, but the spectre of real consequences. It's one of the year's best films.

The Gunman

I spoke of O'Connell huffing and wheezing, well Sean Penn does it here too. Not a very good film but it fed my cheesy 80's action vibe. Full review can be read here.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

In Praise of Maggie Cheung #1

 Part of an ongoing series exploring the prolific, long-standing work of actress Maggie Cheung

 Clean (2004), directed by Olivier Assayas

My initial thoughts on "Clean" back in 2006, in which it placed number 5 on my best films of the year list:

"The most criminally under appreciated film on this list, French auteur Olivier Assayas strikes subtle gold again as he charts the day-to-day survival of the gloriously pretty Maggie Cheung, fresh out of rehab after the drug overdose of her rock star husband. The film’s main conceit is the unobtrusive manner in which the camera hovers on Cheung’s shoulder as she struggles to reconnect with her son, now in the possession of his grandfather (played with tender precision by Nick Nolte, an Oscar worthy performance). Assayas works best in casual modes, and the beauty of “Clean” lies in the unpredictable narrative turns between Nolte and Cheung. Plus, no director films “hanging out” quite as easily as Assayas does."

Still holds true today, not only as one of Assayas' most overlooked great films (or perhaps that honor goes to "Boarding Gate"?), but for Cheung's effortless performance. Shaggy hair, decked out in a punk rock aesthetic (which probably wasn't too far removed from her own personal stylization of the time) and imbuing every movement with a dreary, labored swagger bemoaning the burned-out rehab mood her character struggled with, "Clean" is a heavy film made all the more desperate by Cheung's role. See it now.

Farewell China  (1990), directed by Clara Law

For her 1990's representation this time, "Farewell China" remains one of her more underrated (yet unavailable) efforts. Directed by Clara Law and winning several awards (including a jury prize at the Torino Film Festival for Cheung), the film is a bitter take on the Chinese immigrant experience in America. It's only after the first ten minutes that Cheung leaves her husband (Tony Leung) and departs to New York after finally acquiring a visa. Through her initially prolific letters, she becomes more distant from him and their young baby, eventually and curtly asking for a divorce. Unable to reconcile her reasoning, Leung departs for America himself to find his wife.

Not without her grandstanding moments, Cheung is a marginal character in "Farewell China"- the wife of Leung who sets him upon his Orpheus adventure into the underworld known as late 1980's New York City... a city whose anarchic tensions are bubbling through the seams like an Abel Ferrara picture. Roving Harlem gangs, scrappy 15 year old prostitutes (Hayley Man), homeless men who randomly steal shoes and a nighttime punk rock street party that borders on the openings to Hell are just some of the hurdles facing Leung as he spends several months looking for his wife. It's all carried out in histrionic fashion, but not without its subtle feelings between Leung and Cheung (a pairing that would mutate over time especially in the works of Wong Kar Wai) especially in the moment when they finally come face to face again. But, like a majority of the immigrant stories to America, they find "home" is usually far better than their new home, and in "Farewell China", the denouement is specifically angry and pointed. Not only has the city itself gone mad, but Law inverts the damage psychologically and Cheung/Leung become the unwitting victims to its mercilessness. 

Moon Sun and Stars (1988), directed by Michael Mak

Of the three films discussed here, "Moon Sun and Stars" is most likely the least seen Cheung effort. Yet, even though its not a very strong film, it's elevated by Cheung's performance.... which is typically one of the highest compliments an actor can be given. The fact that Cheung holds her own- and even carves out small pockets of real empathy and depth- in a sub standard comedy/drama about three "service girls" fighting to keep their heads above water during their various trials and tribulations speaks to the credibility of her on screen persona. While the young, beautiful women in "Moon Sun and Stars" endure every type of voracious hardships in the guise of abuse, rape and general dismissal by men even when the promise of true happiness is dangled in front of them, its the simple reaction of Maggie's crestfallen girl when her suitor backs out of a promise that resonates. The overall film may trade unevenly in wild emotions, poor translation and straight up soap opera dramatics, but its Cheung that provides the lifeline for reality otherwise.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Top 5 List: The Con's the Thing

5. Nine Queens (2000)- The loss of Argentinian writer/director Fabian Bielinsky in 2006 was a massive loss to international film making. If one hasn't seen his 2005 "The Aura", then you're missing a flat out masterpiece. But his calling card to larger acclaim came five years earlier with this film, "Nine Queens", about the hustle and bustle of two men (one of whom is the terrific Ricardo Darin) attempting to pull off a massive con involving a rare set of stamps. Bielinsky understands the tension of the con lies in good characterizations... men and women who inhabit the full spectrum of good and bad and everyone in "Nine Queens" deserves a varying degree of observation. Infused with a kinetic Tarantino-esque inertia and a script that flies by with pure adrenaline, this is one film to seek out.

4. The Brothers Bloom (2008)

Starring Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody as grifting brothers who choose the eccentric but wealthy mark played by Rachel Weisz, "The Brothers Bloom" establishes itself right away as another entry in the cinema of "New Cool" as I call it. Director Wes Anderson being the godfather of this movement, of course, Johnson employs some of the same stylish techniques (whip pans, cutesy acoustic music, vibrant color schemes) but creates characters and a story that feel all their own. Perhaps too whimsical for some, I absolutely loved the way Johnson films Brody and Weisz falling in love through a simple dolly tracking shot as they walk the streets of Prague, disappear behind a row of stone pillars, and re-emerge holding hands. Self conscious and definitely aware of its coolness, "The Brothers Bloom" doesn't beat one over the head with it though. Keeping the sweetness intact between child-like Weisz and impressionable Brody as the story (and con-game) grows convoluted is the single masterstroke of Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom". Their relationship isn't a con, and that makes the whole thing work. While the black suits and shades worn by the brothers remains consistent throughout, there's a great scene towards the beginning of the film where we think the action is happening in some burlesque in 1920's Chicago, and then the brothers emerge in broad daylight on a graffiti-filled rooftop overlooking a very modern downtown. Again, some of the images in this film are breathtaking. Johnson seems to relish telling small stories against the fabricated backdrop of embedded narrative styles. And with "The Brothers Bloom" he does this magically.

3. The Spanish Prisoner (1997)- David Mamet has etched a glorious career out of his razor-sharp words. The second Steve Martin suddenly appears and tells Rebecca Pidgeon "I'll give you a thousand dollars for that camera...." in response to inadvertently snapping a blurry picture of him and his (supposed) private plane in the background, nothing is what it seems. As the hot-shot designer of the classic "whatsit" and the technological breakthrough that seems to drive everyone's conniving angle in the film, Campbell Scott is perfectly dry and suited to the Mamet-fold of sheep being led to the slaughter house. I remember first watching "The Spanish Prisoner" in an empty theater in Waco, Texas, feeling awestruck by the mood and tone of Mamet's control. I went back that same night for a second viewing, hoping to connect the dots even more. Yes, its a brilliant con film, but what's not said is more pertinent to the film. It's silences, eye movement and mannered performances are the essence of good suspense cinema and "The Spanish Prisoner" wades exuberantly within these unspoken characteristics. Yes, I even appreciate the stiff performance of Mamet's wife and muse Rebecca Pidgeon here, whose odd inflections and theater-like cadence add a special dimension to the quicksand atmosphere. I think this film is ripe for a re-watch. And looking over the reviews again, I really forgot how well received this film was, garnering special praise from Ebert and really breaking out of the gates from an early premier at the Sundance Film Festival. Special mention to Mamet's "House of Games" as well.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) - Oh how much I laughed as a kid at the iteration of "Ruprecht" by Steve Martin. Yes, its juvenile and slapsticky and obviously catered to the 80's (which is a whole other post), but "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" also holds up today as a terrific comedy with a smart con at its core.

1. Hard Eight (1996)- Yes, it's not "The Sting" or "The Hustler" (although those are very obvious honorable mentions), but P.T. Anderson's mid 90's debut tracks the sleazy exploits of a down-on-his-luck drifter (John C. Reilly) and the mentor (Philip Baker Hall) who takes him under his wing, teaching him how to survive and thrive in Reno. Sharpened from an earlier short film work print called "Coffee and Cigarettes", the film brilliantly announced the prowess of Anderson through gritty performances, astounding cinematography and a strong sense of mise-en-scene as their relationship grows in complexity and danger. Choosing to set the film in Reno instead of the prototypical lush Vegas also adds a sleazy luster to "Hard Eight", succinctly conveying the smoke stained walls and greasy-fingered tables that dominate the film's settings. Very few films are as astounding right out of the gate as this.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, February edition

1. As Filhas do Fogo aka Daughters of Evil (1978)- Disjointed but highly atmospheric Portugese horror film in the loosest sense. Young Ana (Rosina Malbouisson) visits old friend Diana (Paolo Morra) on her palatial estate where they soon become embattled by peeping tom homeless men, electronic voice phenomenon and their own homosexual desires. Part Euro art film and part lesbian soap opera, it's ultimately a psychological thriller rehashed and pieced together from far superior vestiges of Polanski, Rollin and "The Haunting of Julia" from a year earlier.

2. Tiresia (2003)- French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello is a unique artist whose films straddle the salacious line between outright sexual shock and a pretentious philosophical outlook. "Tiresia" manages to encapsulate all of this into one sprawling, unexpected tale. The first half of the film predates his swooning observation of the sultry class (as in his masterpiece "The House of Pleasures") in bombastic tracking shots of transsexual hookers lining the nether streets of Paris, eventually following the titular character as she's picked up by a stranger and then held captive by him in his home. Slowly reverting to her male self without the assistance of her hormonal medication, the kidnapper grows weary of her and tries to dispose of Tiresia in an especially nasty way. She survives, only to suddenly gain the power of foresight and become a sort of mystic prophet in the small countryside where she's nursed back to health. Epic portions of Beethoven careen in and out of the soundtrack and "Tiresia" is complicated, even inscrutable at times, but its power and unusual scope are like nothing you've seen before.

3. The Flowers of War (2011)- Strong effort from wonderful Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou about the attack on Nanking from a more personal angle than "City of Life and Death", which took the atrocity to a hyper-real action film level. This one looks at the survival of a group of schoolchildren within the confines of a church and their unlikely protector, drunk mortician Christian Bale. Moments of over-sentimentality exist, but "The Flowers of War" is largely a gut wrenching and visually poetic treatise on the brutality of war. There's one tracking shot of two women being chased by Japanese soldiers- probably the best in Yimou's career- that careens up and down burned out hallways, across a littered rooftop and then down into the water as one girl jumps that made me gasp. Watch that scene here

4. Ballet 422 (2015)- The best kind of documentary. Enlightening, entertaining and fly-on-the-wally (if thats a word). Full review here at Dallas Film Now.

5. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015)- Spike Lee has softened the experimental edges of Bill Gunn's 1973 film "Ganja and Hess" and spiced it up with crisp New York locales, singing church choirs and lesbian seduction. If those 3 things work for you, then this is your film. Reviewed at Dallas Film Now.

6. It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958)- Ladislao Vadja's take on the "M" murder series is a fascinating procedural that pits determined cop (Heinz Ruhmann) against child killer. The patience and calm attention to detail given to the hunt feels trendsetting for 1958. The only drawback is the violent score that telegraphs the presence of the killer on-screen. Still, hard to find but well worth the effort.

7. Night Across the Street (2012)- Prolific filmmaker Raoul Ruiz's final film wades in the excess of a mortal man lost in the haze of his half dreamt memories, awaiting his death by some unknown hitman. Or maybe simply death in the form of retirement? The potential, realized in such great films like those of Fellini or "The Great Beauty" about man's impending psychological crisis, feels wasted in Ruiz's overtly stylized and dry reliance on obscure literature and non-sequiter lines of dialogue. I understand this is Ruiz's aesthetic, but I was unmoved by it all.

8. The Children Are Watching Us (1944)- No one quite literalizes the scarring ramifications adults often place on children quite like De Sica, and this film, one of his earliest, sets the tone for later devastation such as "The Bicycle Thieves" and "Miracle In Milan". Oh, those final few minutes. Heart wrenching and a near perfect illustration of the feelings that have been boiling towards mom Nina (Isa Pola) for some time.

9. The Burned Barns (1973)- It's very disappointing when a film overflowing with this much talent- Simone Signoret, Alain Delon, Paul Crauchet, Miou-Miou- fails to engage. When the dead body of a young woman, elegantly discarded in the snow like the best giallo mise en scene, turns up on the outer edges of a farm owned by Signoret and her family, they become increasingly drawn into the mystery as Paris detective Delon tries to ascertain the truth. Signoret fares the best as the mother of the clan, quietly attempting to maintain the innocence of her sons even though all clues lead to their guilt. Still, "The Burned Barns" is a bloodless, lethargic affair. Director Jean Chapot seems to have toiled mostly in television work, which may account for the the film's stodginess and complete lack of dramatic inertia. Hard to find, but really only worth it for Delon's laconic coolness, even when he's wading through five feet of snow to solve a murder.

10. Focus (2015)- In the opening credits, the film gives props to someone named Apollo Robbins as con supervisor and pickpocket designer. I really wanna see the documentary on him. Otherwise, "Focus" is forgettable fluff, but brisk and amusing. Full review can be found here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Musical Time Out

Mixed feelings on Father John Misty's latest album, "I Love You, Honey Bear", but this track is the absolute best.

Always a good time for Blur.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

70's Bonanza: Witchhammer

During last month's latest installment of the Sundance Film Festival, word began to trickle out about a horror film called The Witch, a debut film by Robert Eggers that would eventually go on to win the directing award. Strong word of mouth has pushed this gothic New England tale into one of the more anticipated features this year. It will surely also revive the "witches" film, right? So many efforts in this genre- from the late 60's British offerings like "Witchfinder General" to Rob Zombie's post-punk "Lord of Salem"- take the fantasy as truth and spin scary, devilish stories about possession, satanic brews and gaudy bloodletting. So when a film such as Otakar Vavra's "Witchhammer" comes along, not only is it a sobering glimpse at the base inhumanity perpetrated by mankind, but it makes one reconsider the guilty pleasures enjoyed by those other frivolous witches films.

Playing like a Sidney Lumet 'policier' thriller (think "Prince of the City" transposed to 1684), "Witchhammer" concerns the initial hysteria that grips a Czech village when an elderly woman is caught trying to steal a host from her Catholic Mass service. Initially saying the object would be to help nurse a sick cow, her testimony soon includes other women on the outskirts of town and an ominous sounding place called Peter's Rock. Believing they have a full-on witches coven sullying the land beneath their noses, the local leaders call in ex tribunal judge Boblig (Vladimir Smeral) and a mass witches trial eventually overtakes the town. 

Being of Czech origin and released in 1970, its no surprise "Witchhammer" is an angry veiled reference to, basically, name your aggression. Boblig, whose shadowy intentions slowly emerge, is shown to be secretly as vile and consumed by wealth and money than any person in the town said to be a worker of the devil. His wreckage of souls (and bodies through torture) targets some of the richest men in town since their land, upon confession, would be forfeited to his tribunal in order to pay for the trial services. It's not long before "Witchhammer" becomes an exercise in tolerance as we watch the machinations of Boblig destroy people and crush souls all in the name of religious piety. The only comic relief we get are brief explanations of tribunal law from a book about twice the size of the Bible, in which it regulates with mind-numbing calculations the extent to which a head nod under torture is allowable as an actual head nod admission. Bureaucracy hasn't changed in 300 years, obviously.

Filmed in sharp black and white, "Witchhammer" looks just as imposing as its message of institutional confinement. Talky and political, yes, but it also features some stunning, haunting images, such as the stream-of-conscience rant from an imposing monk (framed with just the right amount of light and shadow to create a demonic gleam in his eyes) inter cut throughout the film. The horror film reference is never far removed. Still, his monologues on the seductive ways of women or the various "truths" about how Christianity is usurped by demonic forces make him a likely candidate for any governmental office in the world. 

In an ideal world, the outrageous acts explored in "Witchhammer" are true remnants of the ignorant past, fodder for silly horror films and Vincent Price's intent gaze. Sadly, open any page in any local newspaper and   one realizes we're consistently doomed to repeat that ignorance. For that matter, "Witchhammer" is just as prescient today as it was almost 40 years ago.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Produced and Abandoned #18

Ten more titles deserving a Region 1 DVD release:

1. Chiefs (1983)- Word of mouth has generally been strong for this 4 hour TV miniseries starring Charlton Heston and dealing with the generations-long search for a serial killer. With TV shows plugging into the cultural zeitgeist like never before, I can't imagine this interesting series not warranting a DVD release. Apparently there's a German set that exists from the mid 2000's but it features sub par English translation.

2. Death Powder (1986)- Japanese craziness to the extreme. If that's even possible. Words like deranged, nightmarish and bizarre only scratch the surface. Its widely available on the gray market and if one can find it, I highly recommend it. Maybe, after all, its a bit too much to release on DVD.

3. Streetwise (1984)- Somewhat groundbreaking cinema verite doc about the derelict lives of homeless people, junkies and wayward kids on the streets of Seattle. Pouring over comments about this film on various web sites shows how paramount this film was for many people who viewed it originally and how deeply they yearn for answers about people in this film. 

4. Shanghai Blues (1984)- Basically a plea for more early Tsui Hark to be readily available. This film, starring Sylvia Chang and Kenny Bee, deals with a couple who meet awkwardly during World War 2 and promise to meet up again later in life. Described as a comedy, Hark boundlessly skirts all genres and this one sounds luminous.

5. Brink of Life (1958)- Oddly, one of the few Ingmar Bergman not on DVD. 

6. On War (2008)- Bertrand Bonello is an interesting filmmaker. Part shock sexualist and part pretentious storyteller, his films are never boring (see "Tiresia" or his masterpiece "House of Pleasures"). This unreleased film stars Mathieu Amalric and Asia Argento (!) that sounds, on par, with the rest of his provocative work about the fears and unknown feelings of a filmmaker after a scary experience. There's very little about this film out there, but with Bonello's recent critical success (most recently with "Saint Laurent") here's hoping this film sees the daylight.

7. Survive Style 5+ (2004)- More Japanese craziness apparently. I can't do it justice, so blogger pal Bob Turnbull should lay it on you.

8. It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958)- Another adaptation of the "M" murder films as sensationalized by Fritz Lang and Robert Hossein.

9. Perfect Friday (1970)- British crime film starring Stanley Baker, Ursula Andrews and David Warner and its not on DVD? Really? Really?

10. Shy People (1987)- In the 80's director Andrei Konchalovskiy was THE man. "Runaway Train" and "Tango and Cash" made this thirteen year old very happy. There were also the dramas, and "Shy People" was one of them. Starring Barbara Hershey and Jill Calyburgh, the film is about the clash of lifestyles when a NY journalist returns home to the bayous of Louisiana. Comments and even a prominent listing as one of the best films of the year by Siskel and Ebert have done little to resuscitate this lost film.