Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Films Big and Small


Even though it was a direct-to-video release, garnering little mainstream theater time except for a few screenings at various "Frightfests" around the festival circuit, Christopher Smith's "Creep" is a film that rivals the reckless abandon of sanity that infests Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses". Starring "Run Lola Run" sprinter Franka Potente, she plays Kay, a woman who is en route to (possibly) meet George Clooney at a party. After falling asleep and missing the last metro train on the London underground, she awakes to find herself locked in the massive subway system where something is slowly hunting her. Never mind the plot. Holes abound and the acting is uniformly average, but the film hits such a note of savage intensity that it spirals into an unbelievably demented story of torture and scientific experiments run amuck beneath the concrete. This is not for the squeamish. "Creep" is a horror film that deserves its place on the midnight circuit festivals. It deserves long standing and newfound support on video. And director Christopher Smith certainly has the visual chops for bigger and better things. The atmosphere is photographically ripe- full of green fluorescents and ominous blacks. The editing is sharp, creating unusually genuine scares from quick cuts and Smith's knack for utilizing the darkness around the edges of the screen. And Potente delivers on the heroine in peril character, having fun running around in ripped stockings, being the bait for men both monstrous and normal. And through all the sickening plot twists, "Creep" maintains a sense of humor that, ultimately, collides into a finale that subtly resonates a social conscience.


Steven Speilberg's "Munich" is a thrilling, tightly constructed drama that finally delivers on his promise of intellectual cinema without the falter of maudlin sentiment in the final third act. So much of Speilberg's oeuvre in the last five years (with the exception of "Minority Report" in 2002) grips you so wonderfully in the beginning with high expectations of kinetic ideas and energy, then gradually unravels as emotions and forced happy endings take place. With "Munich", that does not happen. The final five minutes of this film are as devoid of optimism as the first five. Avner (Eric Bana) is spiritually and psychologically bankrupt. There are no clear winners. And like so many other films this year, "Munich" is a film about repressed violence slowly re-incarnating itself in various other forms. A masterpiece.

Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" continues his long progression of documentary oddities- films that portray marginal figures in society butted against social and political impasses. This time, the subject is Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 seasons in the Alaskan wildlife living and befriending grizzly bears. That is, until they ate him. Treadwell is an ingratiating character, and Herzog presents him in many forms and fashions; allowing him to spit virulent slanders towards the Parks department one minute then crying over the carcass of a dead fox the next. On the right afternoon, "Grizzly Man" could easily pass as a broad comedy (especially when a coroner and one of Treadwell's female friends woodenly act out the trading of his personal belongings, and the same coroner later tells his improvised vision of what he thought really happened with wide-eyed wonderment) and Herzog's holier-than-thou voice over lends the tale even more comedic credence. It's not that I'm being unfair to the film. Perhaps Herzog wants us to take things lightly due to the exaggerated premise of the film. If this were meant as pure drama, the film wouldn't be as fascinating.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Oil and more


Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan as a bustling and diligently plotted mosaic of oil moguls, CIA operatives, lawyers and Middle Eastern pawns, "Syriana" is an energetic and exhaustive effort that ranks as one of the most exhilarating films of the year. Much like his previous screenwriting effort, "Traffic", Gaghan juggles time, space and a myriad of characters as they rotate and bounce around the solidifying idea of securing (and profiting from) the world's precious oil expenditures in the Middle East. Much has been made of "Syriana's" complex structure and obfuscated motives of the film's dozen or so main characters. Honestly, that's part of the film's greatness. I found it alluring to connect the dots between Jeffrey Wright's judicial turn as a lawyer (working for who knows) and the Sheik brothers (Alexander Siddig), people connected with most of the film's economic matters. Even more promising is the storyline that follows Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) as an energy consultant who finds himself inadvertently allied with the Sheik after his son is killed in an accident at the Sheik's palace. If that doesn't satisfy, you have George Clooney portraying a CIA operative who performs shadow missions in the Middle East and soon finds himself closed off and hung out to dry by the very people who sent him on his cloak-and-dagger assignments. His arch is the most defined in the film, ultimately transforming him into the film's patriotic conscience…. and the closest thing to the film's hero. Clearly, Clooney's role is there to appease the action starved fanatics who might stroll into the film expecting an old fashioned intrigue 'actioner', but even his performance and the arch of his character is interesting. Plus he gets to spout off nice snippets of dialogue such as "Guilty until investigated? Has the ring of being written as it's said." Another of the film's plotlines traces the progression of a young Islamic man (Mazhar Munir) from despondent, unemployed worker to suicide bomber fairly quickly (which has always been Gaghan's shortcoming as a screenwriter… paraphrasing his characters' lifestyle choices in a very clipped fashion) but actor Munir makes the most of it, effectively capturing the futility of one's dead-end status as well as the confusion that faith and obligation lend to that futility. Not completely successful in storytelling- two scenes involving William Hurt beg the question that there was more left on the cutting room floor- Gaghan straddles the uneasy line between entertainment and political commentary, but it's still a fascinating film that generates genuine tension in mood, sound, editing and ideas. I loved it.


Reaching back into the faults (jeez, is 2003 really that far back?), I finally tracked down a copy of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Doppelganger". Beginning as a creepy psychological horror and ending up closer to an Abbott and Costello comedy, the film stars Koji Yakusho ("Shall We Dance?", "The Eel") as a scientist who begins to see his (evil?) double. From the outset, Yakusho is working on a robotic breakthrough that will give paralyzed people the ability to telepathically control the 'arms' and 'fingers' of this robot so they can crack an egg or light a cigarette. When his project hits a stone wall, he begins to see himself in public places. Is this his imagination or has he really met his double? Kurosawa doesn't waste time in establishing the dual nature of his character. Everything is played with a straight face. Yakusho eventually accepts his double and begins to live with it, allowing the double to, literally, wreck his career and force him to hit the road with an assistant and the sister of a man who died after coming in contact with his double early in the film. Of course, Yakusho's double is everything he isn't in real life (please, no mentions of "Fight Club" are warranted.) The title of the film is a mask not only for its central plot, but for the film's overall schematic. Wildly erratic in tone, Kuroawa has made two films here; one plagued by eerie, slow moving pans in the beginning and the second full of humor and casual violence as it winds towards a completely absurdist finale. This is a world where, when the unwanted double shows up towards the end of the film, Yakusho's assistant gently picks up a hammer and utters "you want me to get rid of him?" This is certainly the funniest of Kurosawa's films, adeptly wavering between genre and mood with the precision and countenance of a master filmmaker.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

DVD mania

Happy Endings

Even though "The Opposite of Sex" was a smart, cynical comedy, nothing could prepare one for the sustained enjoyment and precise characterizations conjured up in "Happy Endings", the third film from writer-director Don Roos. Taking its cue from the sprawling multi-character pieces of Altman and P.T. Anderson (and yes, it's set in Los Angeles where a series of interconnected people zig-zag through life, love and guilt), don't let this discredit the originality and warmth of Roos' script. It's a post-modern sprawling, multi-character piece, where the audience is privy to the action on the screen as well occasionally being littered with text on the side of the image that explains a moment in the scene or gives us a glimpse into the character's future. This sounds glib, or perhaps even artificial. I mean, really, do we need a film to be so self-reflexive that we are burdened with image and text? Has Godard maneuvered into mainstream Hollywood that quickly? But it works… and it works well. It's not an artificial gimmick because Roos builds enough emotion around his characters that we desire to know more than the film's 128 minute running time allows. Perhaps the most moving example of this is a scene in which Maggie Gyllenhaal (as sexy and confident as ever) is lying in bed with her new found lover (a charismatic and terrifically cast Tom Arnold!). The image moves to a small box in the corner of the screen as their tryst continues and the text reads "He will have sex with just 2 more women after Jude. In the last week of his life, a nurse will remind him of Jude and she will think his smiles are for her." I can't think of any recent film that elaborated so succinctly (and poetically) on the invisible tangents that are ignored in most films. Ninety-nine percent of all films don't care what happens to its characters once they supply the necessary narrative drive. And to that point, we usually don't care either. But Roos has an affinity for his creations. He wants them to continue on outside of the linear script and he gives each one of them a past, present and future, whether it's shown on screen or not. "Happy Endings" is a remarkably touching film, formidably cast with a host of actors- Lisa Kudrow, Steve Coogan, Laura Dern, the aforementioned Gyllenhaal and Arnold, Jason Ritter and Jesse Bradford all give stand out performances. There isn’t a single wasted moment or feeling elicited from "Happy Endings". It's one of the very best films of the year. How in the hell did everyone miss it?

My Voyage To Italy

Martin Scorsese's "My Voyage To Italy" is probably the closest we'll ever come to an autobiographical screen representation of the director's magnificent career. Couple this with "A Personal Journey Through American Movies", and you have eight hours of documented images that seared a deep impression on the filmmaker in his formative years. Culling images from the films of Rossellini, Fellini, De Sica and Antonioni, Scorsese compulsively works his way through the narratives and subversive feelings of many of the Italian neo-realism masterpieces. It's not hard to glean where a majority of Scorsese's cinematic tropes have come from. Watching him explain the obvious joys of Federico Fellini's "I, Vitelloni", one quickly understands where the wrestling of faith, flesh and community in "Mean Streets" comes from. And even deeper than that, he gives us glimpses at a single camera move within the same Fellini masterpiece that, basically, shaped and defined every tracking shot Scorsese himself ever attempted. I can think of any other straight forward "documentary" that would give us quite as much insight into the creative mind of a working artist with as much sincerity and eloquence as Scorsese does in "My Voyage To Italy".

9 Songs

Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" charts the romance of an amorous couple in between concert footage of 9 songs (get it). And when I say amorous, I should say pornographic. Winterbottom's cast (male Kirean O' Brien and female Margo Stilley) bare it all for the camera. Ejaculation, full frontal nudity, oral sex and penetration….and did I mention drugs and rock and roll? I'm sure that's the point of Winterbottom's erotic exercise, but what impresses most are the small moments between his lead actors. During the sex scenes, they have the magnetisism of a true pornographic couple, which is to say it's non-existent. But when Winterbottom frames them out of bed, eating dinner, talking shit to each other, or teasing with little dances, their personalities arise and we sorta care about the arch of their relationship. I never thought I'd say this, but "9 Songs" would've work better without the hardcore sex.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Chan Wookpark's "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" does live up to the hype that I've been hearing about for two long years now. Not quite as emotionally gripping or uncomfortably perverse as "Oldboy", there's still an aura of brilliance that hovers throughout this first film in Park's revenge trilogy. Played out in a precise rhythm of cuts and sounds, the film tracks the ultimately violent decisions an unemployed deaf/mute factory worker makes in the hopes of gaining an organ transplant for his dying sister. Enlisting the aid of his revolutionary-minded girlfriend, they decide to kidnap the factory manager's daughter and blackmail him. Of course, tragedy strikes and the four main characters are forced to stumble through a series of bloody confrontations. I have to admit, even though the film is not as strong in its emotional connection to its characters as Park's "Oldboy", "Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance" is a strong visual masterpiece, relying on wordless stretches of images that cast a hallucinatory haze over the film. Certain narrative plot points are skipped outright (such as the entire kidnapping), and Park edits the film in a manner that culminates in an amazingly poignant finale. Chan Wook Park is one of the best directors working today and his oeuvre is yet another reason why Korean cinema contains some of the most vibrant and revelatory moments in international film.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Bio pic is back....

Once you get beyond the somewhat distracting nasal tone of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Bennett Miller's "Capote" is certainly nothing to laugh at. "Capote" succeeds where a lot of biopics fail. Instead of saddling itself with 30 or 40 years of the ubiquitous 'rise and fall' of its protagonist, the film focuses on a sliver of the writer's life- specifically the five years spent on his research and relationship with two men accused of murder in a small Kansas town, and the ensuing masterwork that resulted from those acquaintances. This compression of time allows the film to create layer upon layer of emotional complexity between its characters and it serves as a terrific representation of guilt versus complicity.

I'm not one for writing plot synopsis, but I feel that in the case of "Capote", the film's excellence lies in its narrative trajectory. More observant viewers will recognize the theme of the film from it's opening moments- a shot of a Midwestern farm treeline juxtaposed with the New York skyline at night- director Miller's perfect evocation of the violent and jarring collision between personalities and cultures that soon become enmeshed as the film wears on. New York writer Truman Capote (Hoffman) reads an article in the paper about a Kansas family that were brutally bound and murdered. He immediately feels this is the proper idea for his next book, his first non-ficition entry. Traveling with his friend and research companion Harper Lee (the outstanding, reserved Catherine Keener) they quickly ingratiate themselves into the small Kansas town where the murders took place. Capote's fame and penchant for rabid storytelling win him inside the graces of a local policeman's home (Chris Cooper). This gives Capote detailed, unedited peeks at the crime scene photos. Soon after, two drifters are arrested and accused of the murder. Capote is on the steps as the two men (Mark Pellegrino and the should-be-nominated Clifton Collins Jr.) are led back into town. He and Perry Smith (Collins Jr.) locks eyes and its obvious there is an unspoken (sexual?) attraction between the two men. Soon, Capote finds himself spending days with the incarcerated killer Perry where he quickly identifies with the man's sense of abandonment in childhood. The film's poetic script sums up their relationship best- "Perry and I were like brothers. Except at one point he went out the back door and I went out the front." Perry and his accomplice receive a swift "guilty" verdict and are placed on Death Row where Capote continues to investigate Perry's psyche through random visits. Capote becomes infatuated with Perry, eventually helping him find a better lawyer to raise an appeal. Or is because Capote has yet to find out exactly what happened inside that Kansas farmhouse from Perry himself? Is his dedication to finding a stay of execution for the killers done out of compassion or artistic selfishness? These are only a few of the complex emotions and unspoken drives of the film.

The film is continually enthralling, eliciting grand emotions out of small moments. Take for instance the honesty in which Clifton Collins Jr. responds to Capote as he breaks down, wishing he could've done more for the convicted killer. Or the monumental scene in which our perceptions of Perry drastically change and he talks about that night in the farmhouse. But even that grandstanding scene is shaded with complexity, especially since Perry's "confession" comes right after the realization that Capote may not be the 'amigo' he had once thought. Without seeing the film, I understand all of this is hard to comprehend. It's one of the best of the year. Someone should just give Clifton Collins Jr. the Oscar now.

James Mangold's "Walk the Line", by definition of the above writing, should not succeed as a biopic. It does conjur up those excessive 30 or 40 years of a struggling artist's life that usually sinks all the energy out of the film (as it does in "Ray" from last year). And it almost does here, starting back in childhood where the tragic accident and death of Johnny Cash's older brother instills the prerequsite demons and addicition in him. But, the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and especially Reese Witherspoon carry "Walk the Line" towards a climax that is suprisingly affecting. A nice film indeed.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Girl Power

Directed by Tony Scott and written by Richard Kelly, "Domino" is one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year. Everything about this hyper-kinetic film shouldn't work- from the time fractured (and time-worn) narrative structure of the film to the washed out, amped-up, frenetic pace of it's telling, it's anchor and heart lies in the performance of Keira Knightley. Alternating between a sexy prowess and the ultimate kick-ass-and-take-names-girl in a flash, her range as Domino is impressive to say the least. Sure, Scott and company wade through a host of meta-cinema tropes used to similar effect in previous films ("True Romance" and "Enemy of the State", specifically), but "Domino" succeeds despite it's barrage of cameos and at times, shallow humor. It also succeeds in giving the audience a trio of outsiders to associate with in Knightley, Mickey Rourke and newcomer Edgar Ramirez. Plus, it's hard to dislike a film that blazes off the deep end and eventually weaves in a subplot with mescaline and Tom Waits as some sort of expunged angel stumbling across the gang in a desert.

Niki Caro's "North Country" also details the exploits of a society-fringed female, this time charting the legal and emotional battles of a sexually harassed mine worker in Minnesota. Already pegged as a sure-fire Oscar contender next year, the small glories of Caro's film comes not from Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes, the beleaguered center of the film, but from very strong supporting performances from Richard Jenkins as her father and her best friends played Frances McDormand and Sean Bean. Perhaps the most intense scene of the year comes courtesy of Jenkins as he finally overcomes his reservations about his daughter's conviction and stands up for her as she tries to speak at a miner's council meeting. Caro's a wise director, allowing the emotion to speak for itself, casually and slowly swinging the camera back and forth between Theron and Jenkins on stage as he stumbles through his improves speech. It's a thrilling moment in a film that has some nice, if somewhat cliché, perspectives on blue collar America in a not-so-distant time.

Monday, October 24, 2005

High Tension, Miike madness and George Clooney!

High Tension (Haute Tension)

Alexander Aja's High Tension is a smart and claustrophobic thriller for the first 75 minutes. Then, the twist comes… and it's a twist that betrays the tight and suspenseful mechanics of the film's grandstanding first 2/3. It's sad…. In today's movie-going market, the few great twist endings of the past ten years (Fight Club, The Sixth Sense) have set up an entire generation of other filmmakers to fail. They taught them how to build exciting (if somewhat derivative) momentum, and then pull the rug out from underneath the audience not with genuine surprise or candor, but with laziness and a penchant for one-upmanship.

Marie (Cecilie de France) and Alex (Maiwenn) travel to Alex's parent's house in the south French countryside for a quiet weekend of studying. But things are not as pleasant as they signify, which Aja blatantly establishes with a quick cutaway to a man sitting inside a beat up truck in the same countryside, getting a blow-job from something. We soon learn he's getting it from a severed head. Inside the house, Marie and Alex settle for bed. Marie pleasures herself while listening to her headphones. Her lesbian tendencies are hinted at, coupled by her appearance and the juxtaposition of her masturbation immediately after spying on Alex in the shower.

Eventually, innocence and violence collide as the stranger arrives at the house of Marie and Alex during the middle of the night. Marie is the only one who escapes the killer's grasp through a gloriously well conceived cat and mouse game that takes place throughout the house. But Alex is taken hostage, so Marie sneaks into the back of the truck with her and the games continue across the marginally inhabited countryside.

The best moments of the film come from Aja's economical sense of framing and pace. The film's sleek gore (and there is a plethora, complete with a boldly established slashing in the bedroom and a beheading on a staircase that would make Sam Raimi proud) is underscored by true moments of hideous violence, made all the more terrifying by Francois Eudes' minimal score of high pitches and unnerving sounds.

But all of this becomes moot when seventy five minutes in, Aja deems it necessary to make a great statement on female inadequacy and multiple personalities. Yep, you guessed it… and I'm sure you know what the twist is without me expounding. What's so wrong with leaving some things unexplained? In this day and age, I find the idea of a rampaging redneck killer without a clear motive much more terrifying than wrapping clarification around something as juvenile and facile as sexual orientation gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Good Night and Good Luck

George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck investigates the month long on-air verbal spar between television journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straithern) and Senator Joe McCarthy with flair and dignity. Straithern plays Murrow in a fairly cryptic manner…. And it's obvious that Clooney and company didn't begin this project to surface the emotional undercurrents of its main players. Rather, like All the President's Men, Good Night and Good Luck is a film about responsible journalism in a time that denied and condemned autocratic political analysis. Both of these films contain liberal marsmanship, of course, but they avoid bleeding heart status, concentrating on the integrity of work over feeling (as the latter film explicitly suggests by eschewing a single exterior shot). The closest that Good Night and Good Luck gets to individual illumination is through the supporting role of a wonderful Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck, a reporter and colleague of Murrow. The writings of one local newspaper man eventually force Hollenbeck to commit suicide. Straithern, again removing emotion from the forefront of his masterful recreation of Murrow, challenges the viewer with a simple and direct news flash of his friend's suicide. He plays the scene as he would any other news briefing, but there are small reflections of disgust and anger with the establishment that pushed his friend to the grave. It's a small moment in a solid film that chooses the intellectual way out of a very ignorant point in our history.

3 From Takashi Miike

Three films from Takashi Miike. First, let me say I love the oeuvre of Miike. He is maddening and humorous and twisted…. and through his prodigious 14 year, 60 plus film career, you never know what type of monstrosity he will spray across the screen. One Missed Call, filmed in 2003, is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the Japanese horror sensation of Ringu, Ju-On and Kurosawa's Pulse. The theme- teenagers are terrorized by an omniscient entity beyond the grave through their technology (in this case cell phones that ring, create a "missed call" message and then leave a voice-mail in the future allowing the girls to hear their own death). It's not very original, naturally, but Miike drapes the entire affair within an eerie, dank atmosphere. The final 25 minutes as a young girl explores a dilapidated mental hospital gets extra credit for its sinister tone and genuine aura of fear. Next comes Miike's 1998 science fiction drama hybrid called Andromedia, a tale of virtual reality love (I'm not kidding!). A young girl, Mai (Yora Kinoki) is killed in an accident and her scientist father re-creates her memories into a virtual reality computer program. Her boyfriend and half-brother are then responsible for taking care of her before a group of corporate yakuza types shanghai the computer program and use it for much more evil purposes. Once again, the beauty of a Miike film is certainly not in the liner notes. What ultimately erupts on-screen is a somewhat delicate and affecting love story. The other phenomenal thing about Miike is that no matter how hastily a film is produced, he never loses concentration on the images. Andromedia is a gorgeous looking film, exemplified by one scene where Mai and her boyfriend reminisce about their time on a merry-go-round and the scene morphs into a delicate gold and red flashback…. It’s certainly one of Miike's more poignant moments in a long career of image making. Finally, there's this year's film called Izo. I definitely don't recommend this for anyone wanting to gently immerse themselves into the cinema of Miike. Izo is a violent and intoxicating collage of genre and style. Nakayama Kazuya stars as Izo, an ex-warlord crucified for his actions on earth. He then becomes an avenging soul, and the next 2 hours and five minutes are spent as Izo bounces through time and space, slicing every single person who steps in front of him. Above all else, this is Miike's most violent and incoherent film. This is not always a bad thing. Gozu, Miike's 2004 masterpiece, features some of the same demented meld of genre and pace, but in a much more affective way. Izo is downright demented (and featuring the same type of finale where a grotesque birth ends or begins the madness all over). Perhaps a person more educated on Japanese mythology will understand all the motives and poetic dialogue, but as it stands, Izo is a film full of nightmarish images and fractured, cryptic performances from a host of Japan's most recognized stars (Takeshi Kitano, Miki Ryosuke and Ken Ogata to name a few).

Monday, October 03, 2005

A History of Violence

Fantastic film! A word of warning though- do not see this film on a Sunday afternoon in a crowded multiplex theater. It's interesting to see people when their confronted with an art film on their commercial film screen. Right from the opening, Cronenberg's western noir pastiche elicited the wrong responses from people- snickers during pretty intense sex scenes and laughter at the sight of people being blown away in visceral swipes of real time violence. It's almost too much irony to swallow; people lapping up and responding inapropiately to the exact type of action film that Cronenberg juxtaposes within this art house framework. But, that point aside, this is Cronenberg's best (and scariest) film in quite some time and one of my favorites of the year.

Cronenberg has created a 'fill the void' film- if you want to interpret it as a violent political outcry against the government and our societies' penchant for blood, you got it. If you prefer to see it as an extension of Cronenberg's sensation for the doppelganger, you've got that. And if you care to view A History of Violence as a fairly straightforward re-creation of a graphic novel that allows Cronenberg to confront his sexual and psychological fetishes, then you've certainly got that right. Me, I love everything about it. From the opening scene (as two "bad men" check out of a hotel), Cronenberg douses a supreme sense of dread over the film. The way the camera slowly glides along in one take, the lazy (almost hallucinatory) manner in which the two men carry on a conversation, and the slow ambiguous walk into the hotel office- all of it places us in the capable hands of a director refusing to play by convention. It's not too far off from the nightmarish suburban hinterlands of David Lynch, especially the dark greens and shadowy blacks of the film's final moments between Viggo and an excessively entertaining William Hurt as well as the cartoonish niceness of the small town Viggo and his family reside (where everybody on the street knows your first name). Still, none of this would mean anything if it weren't for the talents of the cast and Cronenberg's reluctance to play anything straight (and turn the film's second half into a dark mirror of the first). The playful and erotic sex between Tom Stall (Viggo) and his wife (Maria Bello) that preceeds the outburst of violence soon gives way to an angry, grudge fuck on a staircase that leaves the wife's back bruised after the killings. Even something as natural and expected as a brief shot of her naked body coming out of the bathroom in front of her husband carries mordant guilt and doubt. This is a film about transgression. This is a film about lies and the way a snake can shed it's skin, but never turn into anything but a snake. And for the record, there's nothing wrong with laughing or having fun at a movie, just not one as serious and determined as A History of Violence.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

3 Films

Sydney Pollack's The Interpretor is politically correct, mildly amusing entertainment with a slapdash of 70's paranoia thrown in for good measure... and after all... that's what we've come to expect from Mr. Pollack. There is a certain amount of gritty tension within the framework of this thriller, though- specifically a French Connection-like tailing scene where all three groups being followed by the powers-that-be end up on the same bus... and it's almost worth the price of admission alone to see the looks on all three agents' faces as they realize, at the exact same moment, that their paths have crossed and some really heavy stuff is about to go down. That said, Sean Penn is firing on all cylinders and Catherine Keener is good for a laugh or too with her world weary sarcasm on full display.

Another film dealing with racial tension, albeit on a much less panaromic view than third world genocide like Pollack's attempt, is Paul Haggis' Crash. God I really, really wanted to love this film. I usually go nuts over this type of gliding, multi-linear soap opera that explicitely overlaps human drama over the course of one fateful day. Altman's Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, specifically, come to mind as two films that stand out last decade as controversial and rousing masterpieces. And there's more in common than that. Haggis, Altman and Anderson all three implode their mounting human suffering by juxtaposing a denouement that has nature step in and blindly spreading her will across the landscape (earthquakes, frogs, and snow in Los Angeles). It's convinving with Altman, bewildering and thrilling with Anderson, but only cute with Haggis. The performances are fine.... but the film has such an enormous weight of "importance" hovering over it, that Haggis' overwriting stumps the personal and emotional ties I began to develop with the characters. Two scenes stand out- Daniel (Michael Pena) lowering himself to his daughter's level and talking to her as she hides underneath the bed and Matt Dillon saving Thandie Newton from a burning car after an... let's call it uncomfortable... encounter the night before. If Crash had sustained the honest elicitations of those two scenes, then we could very nearly have another great controversial and rousing masterpiece to stand alongside the other two. Instead, we end up with a sporadic message movie that is no better than a film that barely even tries. Haggis and company try too hard.

And the cream of this week's crop came from the small screen in Niel Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon. I thought it'd be pretty damn hard for Sean Penn to top his performance in Eastwood's Mystic River, but he does it here, engulfing us with a character that begins uncomfortably and grows into an altogether anamolistic embodiment. It's a frightening performance that tells the true story of Sam Bicke (Travis Bickle, anyone?), a furniture salesman who cracks under the pressure of everyday life and hatches a grand scheme with potentially disastrous consequences. What is most interesting about the film is the way that Bicke slowly transfers all his personal rage and frustration onto an amorphous body such as the American government.. and Richard Nixon in particular. Even better, the film draws an interesting hypothesis on Bicke- that his insanity grew largely out of the disappointment of not just himself, but the entire nation. Would Bicke have even targeted Richard Nixon if he hadn't heard his boss tell him one night that Nixon is a great salesman because Nixon sold the American public (twice) on a lie to end the war in Vietnam? What if Bicke had looked over at the television screen and seen a game show host instead? Would he of transferred the same dissolution on that person? It's an interesting take on the slow-to-burn madman theory and Penn sells it. And the final image is downright brilliant.

Friday, March 18, 2005

He-men and the Hill

There they sat. Five men a long way from the friendly confines of a dugout. The cameras weren't exactly their friends today. They were there in the hopes of capturing something.... monumental? Probably not. The only real question poised is why hasn't Curt Schilling run for public office? He did his best step-and-avoid-it today! Did anyone really expect anything from the Congressional hearings on steroid abuse in baseball today? I sure didn't. I knew Jose Canseco would play the savior and attempt to become the second coming of truth within the multi-leveled hypocricies of major league baseball. I knew Palmeiro would flash his panache and point his finger- especially since he has the luxury of being the only player involved in this fiasco that hasn't been mentioned since day one. His name has only been dragged through the mud for 30 days or so. And I certainly knew Sammy Sosa would play the "i-don't-speak-english-well-enough-yet-to-soundly-answer-any-questions-even-though-i've-been-in-the-states-since-1948 schtick". It worked well. Give the man an Oscar. He certainly knows what to say when your brand new baseball organization sends a ride to pick you up at the airport and you request a limo instead. But perhaps the real revelation came from Mark McGwire. Neither confirming nor denying his involvement with the usage of performance enhancing drugs, he was clearly the committee's shadow target after that. It was obvious the committee was on a witch hunt, and they just may have achived that purpose after McGwire's non answer. Pointedly trying to goad a definitive yes or no out of him after his opening statement, McGwire stood steadfast and replied that he only wished to discuss the present and future, not the past. I think I'll try that next time I end up in court. I doubt it will work. Still, I have to admit that baseball took a minor varnishing today-if only in my mind. And not simply because of the actions on the Hill, but because all of this hoopla has taken away from the blossoming feeling of spring training. Instead of looking forward to opening day, everyone now has to wonder what will happen in the future. The last thing I want are congressional suits fucking around with the unparalalled bliss that baseball gives me. But, after seeing these guys on the hill today, I'm forced to remind myself that the only way baseball will exist as an innocent pastime is in my teenage head.... times when I remember meeting Pete Rose at a baseball card convention before slamming into the revelation that he committed a cardinal sin. Times when I'd spend my days reading the stats on the back of baseball cards and creating my own lineups. If all of this sounds too fatalistic.. perhaps it is. I'm a knee jerker and in 3 months, this may all blow over. But right now, it stings.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Films of 2004

It was a very good year for film. Of course, that's rhetorical. Old auteurs had some sparkling moments and a couple of young newcomers stood up and made me take notice. The following list includes my favorites of the year. These fifteen best may be someone else's fifteen worst, but alas....

1. The Aviator- Martin Scorsese's biopic of entrepreneur Howard Hughes is utterly brilliant, moving, maddening, entertaining.... and any other adjective you can think of. It's not flawless filmmaking, but it soars to unprecedented heights of color, mise-en-scene and movement. It's clear Scorsese is in heaven recreating the rollicking Hollywood era of Hughes' time and it leaks off the screen.

2. House of Flying Daggers- And speaking of leaking off the screen, Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" reaches similiar cathartic moments. I'm not sure how many gasps this film elicited from me, but it was alot. It's certainly the prettiest film of the year, but pretty colors do not always impress. Unlike Yimou's freshman martial arts epic this year (Hero) , "House of Flying Daggers" succeeds not on its breathtaking aesthetics, but the human elements of lust, forgiveness and rage painted beneath the surface.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- I've not been a fan of Gondry and Kaufman unil now. I'm not sure if it's the perfectly evoked love story between Carrey and Winslet or the inventive mind fuck narrative that reflects the most stirring commentary on memory and loss since Chris Marker, but "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" fires on all cylinders. Finally, a love story that feels modern.

4. The Life Aquatic- Wes Anderson's zany, infantile outlook on grown up problems (and that's a compliment) comes full circle again. Even though "The Life Aquatic" dwells on the same issues pressing to the surface of previous Anderson films, he never loses the humanity of his characters. This is subtle, side splitting comedy with a heart- the kind that almost doesn't get made anymore. You can't help but love this film the minute you realize what Bill Murray is feeling when he finally comes face to face with the shark that ate his friend. Purely sublime.

5. Garden State- The second best love story of the year. Written and directed by Zach Braff, the echoes to "The Graduate" are obvious, right down to a Simon and Garfunkle B-side attached to the soundtrack. It does take unexpected turns and creates a passionate little love story amongst the flounderings of familial disconnect and compulsive lying. Alongside "Eternal Sunshine", these two films have the courage to place their main characters on the brink of the future, too afraid to admit what may lie ahead and way too passionate (and young) to ignore the past. Join the crowd.

6. Spartan- Pretty much an afterthough when released early this year, David Mamet's spy thriller is compact, economical storytelling. Flavored with the usual Mamet-speak, Val Kilmer plays a CIA agent charged with tracking down the daughter of the president and he's never been better. As expected, it' a caustic look at modern politics with some fantastic dialogue to boot. Please do yourself a favor and seek this one out.

7. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead- Helmed by Mike Hodges, Clive Owen is a man who returns to town to settle the score when his brother is found dead. Hodges handles nothing straight. Time shifts (you have to pay close attention to shaven or unshaven and clothing to fully understand when the image is happening), Clive Owen gets tougher and tougher and the mood is increasingly mordant. Jean-Pierre Melville would be proud.

8. Tarnation- Here it is.... films can now be made for $300. Jonathon Caouette's highly personal documentary is a pop culture masterpiece, cutting as close to the skin as an essay film can. I'll give Michael Moore some credit for staging a personal vendetta for all to see, but Caouette does the same thing with devastating consequences. It hurts to watch this film... it's that personal.

9. Closer- The second Clive Owen film on this list (and hell, Natalie Portman also). Some find this film cold and disasteful. I thought it was a miraculous commentary on four people crawling in their own skin. And it has the best opening moments of any film this year.

10. Million Dollar Baby- While "Mystic River" topped my list last year, director Clint Eastwood doesn't shy away from the darkside here either. Douglas Sirk would be proud, now. This is essentially two films in one, a boxing movie that teaches us alot about boxing as well as a strong example of redemption and forgiveness. I'm not sure if Eastwood (now 74) is reaching out to someone with his last two films, but you can sense the hurt in both.

11. Code 46- Not to sound elitist, but am I the only one who thinks Micheal Winterbottom continues to pump out mini-miracles with every film? "Code 46" is a sci-fi love story that contains another stand out performance from Samantha Morton. Watch her strobe light techno dance with awe.

12. Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman- Takeshi Kitano has slyly crafted the first samurai musical. The cuts to the music, the final dance number- all background to his usual playful, melancholic tone.

13. Crimson Gold- Jafar Panahi's fascinating drama charts the final few hours of a pizza delivery man before he inexplicably holds up a jewelry store. There are no easy answers here, only a critical and compelling look at a man at odds with everything- society, his girlfriend and certainly himself.

14. Collateral- No one does Los Angeles quite like Michael Mann. Electric and dazzling, there's also a pretty suitable moral piece buried in here somewhere.

15. Napolean Dynamite- I predicted it back in June. I'm already seeing "Vote for Pedro" shirts popping up thanks to the film's comeuppance on DVD. Still, it's a wildly humorous and smart teen film that manages to toss in every possible teen film cliche (the dance, the vote) while keeping ties to an older audience.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Serious Radio- Tops in '04

Was 2004 a great year for music? It's all relative, but if you go looking in the corners, there were some fantastic people making equally fantastic music. Granted, alot of the discs I'm seeing on other year end lists (Kanye West (not really my style), The Arcade Fire, Brian Wilson, Wilco) I never got a chance to hear. But, with the addition of my ears into the streaming blitz of sound resonating from something called Sirius radio, my musical horizons have been indefinetly broadened. With one flip, I can jump from old school remixes to left of center college radio ( a truly awesome experience, hearing everything from Straylight Run to old PJ Harvey) to world beat... it's enough to make the gentlemen from "High Fidelity" go bonkers. So, maybe I should give Kanye West a listen.. some of the surprises on this favorites list popped in from nowhere. Maybe I'm missing something.....

1. Interpol "Antics"- The second album from these New York rockers is as close to perfection as you can get. Borrowing their driving rhythms from Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, the songs come fast and furious, sometimes slipping into pretentious lyrics, but ultimately arriving at cathartic moments.

2. The Killers "Hot Fuss"- Certainly the best album of 198.... I mean one of the best of this year. Their sound is so deliberately 80's it's not funny, but in an utterly tremendous way. Foot tapping and melodic, I want to hear everything from these guys. And they hail from Las Vegas. How many great bands come from there?

3. The Mars Volta "Tremulant" (EP)- Formed from the remnants of the fabulous West Texas band called At the Drive In, The Mars Volta further their experimental sound with this new formation. Just as unpredictable as ever, the three songs on "Tremulant" range from weird techno to pulsating 'tejano' rock featuring the truly original voice of lead singer Omar Rodriguez Lopez. Certainly not for all tastes, but for the life of me I can't figure out why At the Drive In never broke through. I think The Mars Volta will. Soon.

4. Burden Brothers "Buried In Your Black Heart"- Another group formed out of the ashes of a dominant Texas band featuring a unique lead singer, the Burdon Brothers compiled members from The Toadies and Reverend Horton Heat after both folded. Singer Valden Lewis and the others tear it up here as well. The paranoia and darkness of The Toadies "Rubberneck" LP is still on display to some extent, while the tunes are much more optimistic than one would expect. A terrific album to drive to also... which is all anyone can really ask for right?

5. Muse "Absolution"- My love for Radiohead should, naturally, exclude this English band from the list. Fact is they do Radiohead pretty damn well. Certainly more mainstream than their idols, "Absolution" reaches some great heights of sound and vocals. I listened to this album more than anything else this year.

6. "Garden State" soundtrack- While the film is one of my favorites this year, the soundtrack has some value also. Gems from indies (Iron and Wine, Remy Zero, Frou Frou) will linger with you for days. The whole album is quiet and sublime. It sneaks up on you and never lets go.

7. U2 "How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb"- Another given.. I just love U2. They hardly ever do wrong in my opinion.

8. Modest Mouse "Good News For People Who Love Bad News"- When I heard the single for "Float On", I thought.. wow the Talking Heads are back together? Truth is, I had never heard of these guys before. After the first listen to this album, I began to question my sanity. Why hadn't I (and for that matter the whole world) been breaking down the doors for Modest Mouse? I've gone back and listened to a majority of their older stuff now and am thoroughly giddy. Altogether playful and hum-inducing, this album is proof that you can have fun making and listening to music.