Sunday, December 30, 2007
Friday, December 28, 2007
Sweet and virtually inoffensive, "Juno" plays as the modern alternative to other 'teen comedies', i.e. treating adult concerns with adult humor. But, while Ellen Page is getting accolades as the lead character in baby-trouble, her presence is the reason why I didn't fully embrace the film. Diablo Cody's script is extremely artificial. I didn't believe for one second that there exists a 16 year old as whip-smart and sarcastic as Juno (and certainly a 16 year old who appreciates bands as obscure as Mott the Hoople and The Melvins) and her razor-sharp reactions continually removed me from the warmth building from the film's plot. Mildly amusing, at best.
Charlie Wilson's War
Definitely one of the best screenplays of the year, written by TV veteran Aaron Sorkin. I should probably pay more attention to his stuff if everything he writes is this witty and intriguing. Not only do actors such as Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts get to bask in the intelligent delivery of lightning dialogue, but the plot concerning a Texas Congressman's covert dealings to arm the Afghan holy soldiers against invading Soviet forces circa 1981 is probably more pertinent than a majority of the Iraq war films released this year. Director Mike Nichols keeps a light touch on the whole affair, but "Charlie Wilson's War" is still dark, funny and it pulls no punches by indirectly commenting on the screwed-up state of affairs left behind after America wages war in a given country. It's easy to laugh at the film's comedic framework, but there's still a very troubling undertone as stock footage of Afghan warriors shooting down Soviet helicopters plays on the screen; probably alot of the same weapons that are killing American troops over those same mountains today. Hindsight is 20-20.
Todd Robinson's noir pastiche is an up-and-down affair, hitting the nail on the head one moment then splintering the entire wooden board the next. Chock full of A-list stars, "Lonely Hearts" documents the murderous relationship between a couple (Jared Leto, bad hairpiece and all, and sensual and lovely Salma Hayek) as they murder and dispense of wealthy female bodies across the midwest. The cops on the trail, played with earnest by John Travolta, James Gandolfini and Scott Caan, spout the usual lean dialogue and act moody, hardboiled and terse. But, in fact it's the relationship between the cops that works best, especially the heavy cloud of depression that hovers over Travolta's widowed cop persona. "Lonely Hearts" is less believable when it follows the jealous, violent excursions of Leto and Hayek, stirring up some sexual tension (mostly on Hayek's part) but wavering just a bit above camp. This could've been something really good. Still, director Robinson is someone to watch.
In a sold-out theater, you could literally feel the anticipated air sucked out of the place when song burst forth from the lips of Johnny Depp and shipmate Anthony (Jamie Bower). While the film largely succeeds on one's patience with the musical genre, the cast is marvelous and the song's often soar. And the blood is really, really red and director Tim Burton certainly planned alot of mileage out of Sacha Baron Cohen's lower half. It didn't quite live up to the hype for me, though.
Monday, December 24, 2007
The following is the first in a series of posts recapping the year of 2007.
In an especially strong year for films, there was something else in the air. Old familiar faces made a strong return, some genres were brought back to life and the worldview of our presence in Iraq grew increasingly dissident and overpowering in the media. The few ideas listed below were things that stood out in a solid year for filmmaking:
1. 2007 is the year of Josh Brolin- Sure, we all remember him as the cranky older brother dragged into an adventure in that 80's classic, "The Goonies", but '07 saw Brolin featured in four wildly different films. As a crazed doctor in Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror", this was the first hint of something outstanding for him in 2007. Featured less prominently in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" as the police superior to detective Charlize Theron, there 1 scene together, nonetheless, crackled with intelligence and unspoken trust and hinted at a relationship much greater than their screen time. Then came the one-two punch of "American Gangster" and "No Country For Old Men", proving that lightning can strike four times in the same spot. While his performance in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster", as a dirty police detective, is certainly more flashy than anything else he did this year, its still a performance that felt electric and menacing and not overcooked And he certainly wins the award for best facial hair in '07.
2. The return of the western- Five different films this year place their characters in genuine "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" territory. What's even more impressive is their range of storytelling within the genre. There was the more workmanlike, mainstream efforts of James Mangold's "3:10 To Yuma" and David Von Acknen's "Seraphim Falls" coupled with the dreamy aesthetic of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" that gave audiences several visual sides to the genre. Then, the Coen Brothers ripped apart the beautiful vistas of West Texas to create a bloody, allegorical tale about good, evil and the progressively shifting landscape of the old west in "No Country For Old Men". It's western roots certainly can't be denied, though its a film that tries its best to hide the cowboy aesthetic. Upcoming is Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood", focusing on the land-grabbing exploits of oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) later this month. The western has been trying (unsuccessfully) to make a grand return to modern movies (remember Kevin Costner's many efforts as well as head-scratching efforts such as "The Quick and the Dead"?) and for the first time, these 5films make a concerted effort to bring back the revisionist heyday of the 1970's.
3. Tommy Lee Jones- Any movie fan knows that Tommy Lee Jones will produce unfaltering performances, but there was something very special about 2007. First, in September his lead role in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" took what could've been a routine examination of the violence inflicted at home by a disturbed Iraq war vet and turned it into an honest feeling, penetrating character study of a father relentlessly searching for the truth. There's not an ounce of vanity in his performance, not a single moment when he feels like he's grandstanding, and its a wonderful film by a filmmaker who has the tendency to go overboard with maudlin sentiments. Jones kept everything in check. Then, just over a month later, his supporting role that soon turns into the defining personality of the whole movie, Jones embodied the world-weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men". Again, his presence feels so natural and unpretentious that its probably sad he'll be overlooked for any major awards this year because he does it so well. Here's hoping Jones has many more roles both behind and in front of the camera.
4. Iraq on Film- The political and cultural outcry has been deafening since early '06, and filmmakers responded with an array of suggestions on film about the Iraq war. From solid documentaries to feature length fiction films, there were certain months when every week saw an influx of war-themed films. Audiences certainly didn't respond, even to well intentioned films such as "No End In Sight", and the market became flooded with 'downer' films about a war that no one cared to see outside of CNN. Still, the idea that a polarizing event such as this can elicit the passion of so many artists is heartening, whether the films themselves were any good or not.
5. The "R" rated comedy- Perhaps the cinematic baby of one group of men (the Apatow crew), the "r" rated comedy made a hearty resurgence. We saw this coming in 2005 after films such as "The Wedding Crashers" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" created box office gold, and it took a little longer than expected to come full circle, but films such as "Knocked Up", "Superbad", "Walk Hard", and "Hott Fuzz" broke onto the American screen with ferocity in 2007. And the positive side to all of this- the Apatow gang has apparently gotten a greenlight to create several more films in '08. Let's just hope they don't wear out their welcome.
6. Bad Distribution Tales- This may be more of a local issue than anything, but one discomforting fact about '07 was the limited release of great films that deserved more of a commercial push. Typically, Dallas is a market that sees a great majority of films released in a given year. They start out small, one 1-4 local arthouse screens then open on larger screens as word of mouth grows. In '07, I noticed a decrease in the amount of screens given to independent arthouse fare. Films such as "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford", "Reservation Road", "Southland Tales", "The King of Kong", "Lust Caution", "Lake of Fire", "Control" and "Rescue Dawn" played on 1-2 screens in deep downtown, failing to make it into larger theaters. I managed to catch a couple of these films, but very few opened outside of limited availability. Add to that fact, all of these films were given prominent trailers and even cardboard standouts in larger multiplex theaters around the Dallas area. Theater chain Cinemark, which dominates the market here in Dallas-Fort Worth with their luxurious, 24 screen megaplexes, often denotes 4 screens per theater to what the call 'CineArts'. While smaller films such as the ones listed above languished on 1 screen in lower Dallas, the 'CineArts' section featured films such as "No Country For Old Men" and "Enchanted"!!!. Even after good word of mouth, these films still went no where. This is the first time I've noticed this and hopefully, it's not a trend that'll continue in the new year.
I'd be curious as to what other trends you movie fans have noticed this year. Be on the lookout for upcoming posts such as performances of the year, my favorites of the year and the annual presentation of my Moments of '07 article, now going strong in its tenth edition.
Friday, December 21, 2007
1. I wish that my Netflix queue would get below 150 titles.
2. I wish that Terrence Malick eventually moves out of theory territory and gets to film his latest.
3. I hope the blog world continually progresses, morphs and develops into something even cooler.
4. I wish there to be less sequels, remakes and dumb parodies in 2008 (which seems even less likely than my queue being below 150 titles).
5. I wish that the next-gen format war will be decided so I'll know if my purchase of an HD-DVD was as wise as Mark Cuban investing in Google twelve years ago or fool-hearted.
6. I wish that baseball would somehow rise out of its muck and heal itself, endure and re-emerge as America's pastime, not its black eye.
7. I wish I get to play more golf next year.
8. I hope '07 produces just as many quality films as '08.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
I did sneak away last weekend to see Joe Wright's "Atonement" and I have to say... while my initial response was something only a little more than average, the film has been growing in my mind ever since (especially the virtuoso five minute tracking shot that almost trumps Cuaron's in last year's "Children Of Men"). And Keira Knightley looks so, so good as the left-behind lover to war ravaged James MacAvoy. Still, while the plot is something out of a Lifetime movie, "Atonement" managed to sneak into my subconscience and linger there, creating a feeling that the film deserves more credit than I initially gave it. While it'll certainly score with the 30+ female crowd (which isn't bad for us guys who love for a film to stir up the romantic juices!) it's also very well acted, elegantly photographed and ingeniously structured.
This weekend I'm hoping to make it out to see "Juno", "Sweeney Todd" and several others. Of course, "There Will Be Blood" is on the horizon and I'm still waiting for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" which seems to be a few weeks overdue.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Frank Darabont's "The Mist", based on the Stephen King story of the same name, is their best collaboration since Darabont's humanistic treatment of "The Shawshank Redemption". "The Mist" is good, old fashioned gory fun. It definitely takes some smarts to keep the tension going when a horror film is confined to one central location (a supermarket) for over 95% of its running time, and Darabont's eye continually finds ways to open up the setting and keep us involved with the array of characters. In a nutshell, the population of the film serve as a microcosm of the world at large. Not only are races, ages, gender and financial backgrounds addressed, but the story pays particular attention to the vicissitudes that arise when religion enters the frame. And not only does "The Mist" get plenty of mileage out of its religion-mongering, but it acutely paints a convincing portrait of the apocalypse coming to town.
As for the story itself, Thomas Jane plays the New England American male to the hilt, starring as David Drayton. We get brief glimpses of his perfect life on the New England coast as he deals with the after-effects of a violent storm. Drayton and his young son (Nathan Gamble) give neighbor Brent Norton (intellectual New York lawyer played by Andre Brougher) a ride into town. The film kicks into action barely ten minutes in as a mysterious fog envelops the town and someone runs into the supermarket with a bleeding nose describing creatures from the mist picking people apart. From then on, the supermarket becomes the battle ground as all stratus of life defend themselves from the impending other-worldly creatures. Among the stand-outs of the large ensemble cast include Laurie Holden as the virtual stand-in for Thomas Jane's missing wife to give him comfort and loving crush-like glances, Toby Jones (yes, that other "Capote" guy), William Sadler and someone almost as terrifying as the unknown things in the mist, Marcia Gay Harden as the eventual proposed "vessel for God".
I don't mean for this brief plot synopsis to sound glib. It's hard to give "The Mist" justice from a narrative standpoint. Somehow, Darabont makes the "b" movie generics work and you actually feel for the characters. Unlike other recent horror films, they aren't just pieces of meat thrown into cringe-inducing circumstances with little more than a beautiful aesthetic to drive any feelings about them. Darabont's visuals and King's content care about their backgrounds and their intelligent reasoning. Not only that, but there are some genuine surprises here that push "The Mist" above the average horror film. Why it's failed with critics and audiences alike, I'm not sure. I understand the film is relatively faithful to King's original concept (right up to the very dark and supremely depressing ending that I applaud), so it's not a matter of Hollywood screwing up the adaptation. Perhaps the real culprit is a tough schedule. How many people really care to see a gory film on Thanksgiving (which was its original release date)? Either way, "The Mist" is an entertaining experience whether its Halloween or turkey day.
Margot At the Wedding
The second film, Noah Baumbach's "Margot At the Wedding", describes the apocalypse in smaller, more intimate ways. It comes in the guise of Nicole Kidman as Margot, returning home for a wedding for her sister, Pauline (a radiant Jennifer Jason Leigh). In tow is Margot's son, Claude (Zane Pais), and its not initially made clear the reasons for Margot's sudden departure from her husband and other son in New York, even though elliptical cell phone calls to home reveal unpleasant feelings. Margot's urban malaise soon spreads to her sister and fiance (Jack Black) as the wedding date draws near. Margot is a woman who continually divulges secrets to others, quietly spreads her judgemental attitude of Pauline's choice for marriage, and cannot face her own shortcomings, which includes an affair with local writer Dick Koosman (Ciaren Hinds). To make matters worse, Koosman lives a mile from Pauline, slowly surfacing the idea that Margot re-united with her sister not out of familial harmony but selfish sexual attraction.
Baumbach's fifth feature is ugly in every way. Cinematographer Harris Savides' natural light usage came off as splotchy and under lit on the print I watched. Nicole Kidman is an insufferable woman (to use a quote from the film itself) and while some vicious chamber drams can be penetrating, "Margot At the Wedding" comes off as inept. Young Claude seems to be the most damaged persona from the waves of Margot's bad vibes. One moment his mother is telling him to wear the shades she bought him because "they look cool" and the later, immediately after smiling and putting them on, she comments that "they make your face look wide". As a study in child abuse, "Margot At the Wedding" is spot-on... as anything else it's often trite and artless. Baumbach's previous feature, "The Squid and the Whale" also dealt with the progressive dissolution of a marriage and the effects on two young boys. In that film, Baumbach seemed to be throwing darts and hitting the mark, expressing adolescent feelings of confusion and frustration with precise understanding. In "Margot At the Wedding", the themes come off simply as confusing and frustrating.
Both reviews can be read at Talking Moviezzz.
Monday, December 10, 2007
1. Private Fears In Public Places- new Alain Resnais film.
2. Exterminating Angels- No, this list won't be full of complex French New Wave films as already suggested by these 2 titles, but this one finally hit DVD and I've heard pretty incredible things about it. Directed by Jean Claude Brisseau, the film follows François (Frédéric van den Driessche) as he embarks on a film exploring female sexuality. He quickly finds himself in over his head as a cast of beautiful women are quick to unleash their inhibitions before the camera. Oohh, I love arty Euro porn...
3. Pigs- From Netflix, "Ex-KGB agent Franz Mauer (Boguslaw Linda) is having a tough time adjusting to work life in post-communist Poland. Once part of a privileged, elite squad, Franz now finds himself on the regular police force, assigned with infiltrating an illegal drug cartel. But the cop soon discovers many of his former colleagues have joined the ring he's trying to bring down. W. Pasikowski directs this crisp thriller that pits old loyalties against a new order." Never heard of it, but I'm willing to give it a try.
4. La Jetee/Sans Soleil- While I love Chris Marker's "La Jetee", I've never seen his "Sans Soleil". Ok, so maybe this list WILL be full of complex French New Wave flicks.
5. Ma Mere- All the critical rage right now seems to be French filmmaker Christophe Honore, and this film features Isabella Huppert seducing a younger man.
6. Waiting For the Messiah- I've seen 2 Daniel Burman films now- "Lost Embrace" and "All Stewardesses Go To Heaven". He's a supremely gifted Argentinian filmmaker who makes small, personal films. Not far removed from the star-crossed lover narratives of say, Julio Medem, Burman had a nice write-up in "Film Comment" last year which caused me to seek out his stuff.
7. Ivan's Childhood- Tarkovsky's debut film. I'm sure I've seen this somewhere down the line, but it needs a second viewing.
8. The Devil Came On Horseback- '07 documentary on the genocide in Darfur. Honestly, I've given the Iraq war documentaries a break but its time to check this one out.
9. Power- Sidney Lumet political drama. Richard Gere stars. That's all I need to know.
10. Sweet House of Horrors- No itsamadmadblog list would be complete without a cheesy exploitation flick from Lucio Fulci in the mix!
Friday, December 07, 2007
The Road Warrior
Outstanding film in every aspect and probably my favorite of the post-apocalyptic genre film (even more so than "Mad Max"). With oil prices rising over $100 a barrel recently, its not hard to imagine this film's manic sense of desperation coming true in the future. And while the narrative is pressingly contemporary (leather-clad scavengers dueling it out in a sun-scorched desert for any traces of gasoline or weapons), the visual aspect of George Miller's "The Road Warrior" are, quite simply, beautiful. Thinking back on the "Mad Max" series, it's hard to visualize noticeable amounts of color in the series besides desert brown and yellows, but in HD DVD, the images are impressive and the wide-open landscapes become even more frightening. And the climactic chase scene (running close to 17 minutes and logistically superlative for the DIY production of Miller's work ethic) stands out as a remarkable feat due to this version's attention to color, image definition and lack of pan-and-scan deterioration. This is the best HD DVD I've seen yet.
Actually, now titled "Payback: Straight Up; The Director's Cut", this 1999 film has been re-edited and re-scored by writer-director Brian Helgeland after the studio (and stand in director Mel Gibson) conducted a fairly thorough hatchet job of the film upon initial release. Far meaner and more linear than the original, Helgeland has done a good job with shuffling the picture back into something more in line with his original intentions. I liked the film on first release, and found it even more enjoyable on a second viewing. The odes to Boorman's "Point Blank" are still rife, and with name-drops courtesy of genre films such as John Flynn's "The Outfit" and Mike Hodges' "Get Carter", Helgeland's revenge drama plays out like a sinister doppelganger of those earlier crime classics. But, its Helgeland's style (washed out and faded with blue tint) that doesn't come across well in the Hi-Def format. This is actually only a notch above standard definition and certainly not worth the effort for sheer visual quality. Part of this may be because Helgeland was forced to re-edit the picture based on old film instead of the digital masters, but this is definitely not a showcase for the vast improvements that HD-DVD can bring to the average viewer's living room.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
So what does all this mean? Not much in the real world, but I love lists as much as the next guy and I thoroughly enjoy creating them each year. Typically, December is my catch-up month. By my notations, I've already seen 114 theatrical releases this year (either in the theater or on DVD) and it's been 2 films a day for the past week or so. I'm catching up with '07 releases such as Jafar Panahi's "Offside", Johnny To's "Exiled" (which I'm super psyched about, being the To devotee I am), Charles Burnett's re-release of "Killer of Sheep", Gregory Wilson's "The Girl Next Door", Tsai Ming-Ling's "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone", Rolf de Heers' "Ten Canoes" and whatever other new releases pop up on the home video radar soon. This'll go on until the first or second week in January as I gorge myself on all possible '07 releases, which makes me feel somewhat comfortable that I've seen a fair retrospective of this year's notable features. I don't know why I do it... it's an obsession and it makes me feel better, ok. You guys in the film blog world understand my pain.
Add to that, we still have some pretty incredible films on the horizon in theaters. This week Dallas gets "Juno", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "Margot At the Wedding" and "Atonement". Upcoming is "There Will Be Blood", "Sweeney Todd" and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting. In my opinion, '07 has been a pretty rich year for filmmaking and I hope it continues.
I can also add that I feel particularly enthused about my movie-watching this year. Not only did I meet or exceed alot of my pre-ordained goals, but my posting on this particular blog increased dramatically as well as my contributions to Talking Moviezzz. And I owe so much of that to you, my blog community friends. The idea of posting about a certain idea or film spurred my writing interests and gave me something to accomplish. For example, all the talk about "No Country For Old Men" that kicked up (and is still kicking heavily) got me to the theater probably a week or so earlier than I usually might have. The idea of writing about a film and seeing it whirlwind around the net with intelligent discussions is a pretty liberating feeling. There was something like this on old movie boards, but not with the zest, visual flare and authenticity that exists on blogs today. I just count myself as a lucky person who heard a friend talking about "blogs" back in '04 and finally hurled myself into gear in late '05. I've enjoyed every bit of this experience and look forward to next year.
So, enough treacle and with that I'm off to watch "Exiled". Thanks everyone.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
One of the undisputed joyous by-products of movie watching is the exposure to new music and artists. It happened to me with a band called The Broken Social Scene last year after hearing their exceptionally well-crafted music for the film "Half Nelson". I just finished So Yong Kim's "In Between Days", an involving film about the relationship between a transplanted Korean teenager and her male friend. Pitched somewhere between the quiet, observational films of Japanese directors such as Riyuchi Kiroki and the fly-on-the-wall camera skills of the Dardennes Brothers (since the camera hardly ever leaves the face of the film's female lead) "In Between Days" manages to be an effective study in teen alienation. Even better is the film's soundtrack, featuring songs by New York band Asobi Seksu (i.e. playful sex). Not only is their sound eerily reminscient of 'sound bands' like My Bloody Valentine and the aforementioned Broken Social Scene, but female lead singer Yuki Chikudate has a voice that spills out sexuality. There's something very special when a female singer hits that perfect sound, and this band certainly does that. I'm becoming a fan. Check out the above clip and see if you don't as well.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
Olivier Dahan's "La Vie En Rose" charts the rise and fall of "the soul of France" singer Edith Piaf. From her lowly, poverty-stricken childhood and nurturing years in a bordello to her faded-out and sickly self in the 60's, no emotion or biopic trope is left unturned. That's by no means a slap-in-the-face to the film. In fact, the performance of Marion Cotillard, deservedly, has received magnanimous praise from all four corners of the critical world and an Oscar nomination is most likely pending. "La Vie En Rose" just falls short of arousing the imagination and shaking the dust off its representation of France from 1918 to the late 50's. By contrast, director Todd Haynes has chosen as his subject a musical figure just as great and imposing in his own time and place as Edith Piaf was in her time; and Haynes dares to blow up the traditional biopic narrative in favor of an avantgarde pummeling of the eyes and ears. It's not a coincidence that neither film would be quite as impressive without their centerpiece performer being smoldering, explosive personalities of their own. And both Dahan and Haynes fervently re-produce the pleasure and the pain experienced by Piaf and Bob Dylan (even though Dylan is only actually glimpsed once in the film as his music permeates the entire affair). While "I'm Not There" is my personal favorite of the two, "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" add immense characteristics to the biopic that felt (already) overexposed after "Ray" tailed the heels of "Walk the Line". And that is certainly a good thing.
Technically, Dahan and Haynes' films couldn't look or sound any more different. While Dahan profits in the blacks and browns of France, Haynes prefers a more colorful and manic schematic. "La Vie En Rose" fills itself with dark interiors so much, that about halfway through, I begin to wonder if each scene wasn't initially constructed in the dark and they just kept adding candles and lighted corners to round out the visual aura of the scene. Comparatively, "I'm Not There" jumps from fuzzy black and white to ethereal natural greens and blues with the audacity of a musical DJ, creating a separate look and feel for each persona inhabiting the world around 'Bob Dylan. It's no surprise that one of the films producers is Steven Soderbergh, an artist whose made a lifetime out of specific color tints for each strand of his multi-narrative efforts.
Acting is another story. The shifting perspectives of 'Bob Dylan' are given weight through six different actors portraying a critical point in Dylan's busy life. Ben Whishaw is the confessional Dylan, spending the entirety of his section answering questions directly to the camera as if locked before an inquisition. Marcus Carl Franklin is the young Dylan, discovering his roots by train-hopping and evolving his musical style based on blues records and Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is Jack/John, the Dylan who reached cult folksinger fame and later rejected all his fame and fortune by converting to Christianity in the late 70's. Heath Ledger is Jack Rollins, the Dylan lost in movie-fame status and the persona who receives the greatest emotional arch in the film through his failing marriage to a composite wife played by Charlotte Gainesbourge. Perhaps the most praised section of the film belongs to Cate Blanchett (having another monster year as a fearless actor who sees no boundaries in the range of her acting choices) as Jude. Here is the Dylan who went electric and shocked the musical paradigms, embarked on a disastrous England tour and eventually got mixed up in the fast and furious heyday of the 60's pop phenomenon. The most challenging and cryptic section of "I'm Not There" belongs to Richard Gere as Dylan-as-Billy The Kid, dressed up in full western wear and rambling around in Riddle, Missouri where's he caught up in the land-grabbing scheme of Governor Garrett played by Bruce Greenwood, who also locks horns with Blanchett's Jude as a BBC news correspondent. While each section conjures up varying degrees of success, the overall mood and energy of "I'm Not There" lapses into a wild and spirited pastiche of 60's pop and avant garde filmmaking. There are more than a few winks to Bergman, Fellini, Pennebaker (naturally), Godard, Warhol and Peckinpah. While there's alot going on inside the various heady trips of "I'm Not There", Marion Cotillard has it a little easier. She's only required to portray one person, although the mood shifts and drug addictions that populate within Edith once she hits it big requires Cotillard to wear several faces. And that's the overwhelming pleasure of both films- the void that ordinary people fall into and the shifting faces that society forces them to hide behind. Piaf coped through addiction and temper flares whereas Dylan retreated from the world.
Both "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" taught me something about their respective artists. Granted, going into Piaf's life, I never very little (ashamedly) about her. In fact, I wonder if alot of the world didn't learn about her through Tom Hank's soliloquy about her in that calm scene in "Saving Private Ryan" before all hells breaks loose. It's Piaf's voice that gives the American soldiers comfort before their impending doom. I did know alot about Dylan and his music before going into "I'm Not There" which, perhaps, allowed me more fun in the chaotic experimental scrambling of his life, words and sounds. While Piaf's voice is mesmerizing, it's not the driving force behind "La Vie En Rose". Her destructive fall from soulful grace is the overriding theme of the film and even though Dahan does his best to modernize the film through the ubiquitous use of a time-shifting narrative (1918 one minute, 1963 on her deathbed in the next, back to the heyday of glitz in 1936 etc.) it sours the film with a been-there-done-that attitude. "I'm Not There" on the other hand, gives us a dazzling and imaginative treatise on Dylan that exceeds any expectations. Confusing one minute, euphoric the next, "I'm Not There" rattles along like a fever dream and it features some of the most exquisite images flowing against the music of Bob Dylan you'll ever see. While it can be overloading at times (and any film that requires a "Official Guide to the Movie" handed out by the movie theater elicits a what-the-hell feeling), the glory is in Haynes' brilliant re-visualization of the many lives of Dylan. One scene in particular, building up to Jude's (Blanchett) entrance at the now infamous Newport Jazz Festival, displays the film's articulate visual and audible design as Jude/Dylan goes electric. It inserts a quick imaginative cut of what it must've felt like to be in the audience that day. And that's only one example of Todd Haynes' magical outlook on life and art throughout "I'm Not There". There are a dozen others I could mention. While "La Vie En Rose" traffics in a musical life just as polarizing as "I'm Not There", its results are dramatically less. I wonder what Todd Haynes could do with Edith Piaf? Barbies dolls again perhaps?
Saturday, November 24, 2007
How can such a large part of cinema history go unnoticed or undocumented for so long? Pennell eventually produced 6 feature films and one short, all based in Texas and employing the basic same cast members. Richard Linklater claims Pennell as a major influence. None of Pennell's films are available on anything except out of print VHS copies and there's been very little retrospective writing on his career, even though he seems to be a larger-than-life figure who caused more destruction by his drinking than his filmed efforts.
All of this got me thinking- I live in one of the largest states in the United States and our film history is exponential, boasting some highly innovative filmmakers and works who get very little attention (as I'm sure every state could claim). So, to rectify that in my own small way, I plan on seeking out Texas made films and shedding some light on their existence. This may be an arduous process at times... tracking down out of print VHS copies or soliciting the many local video stores for homemade, off-the-wall personal experiments, but its an undertaking I feel compelled to attempt. If we don't understand and experience the miles closest to home, how can we ever really call ourselves cultured in the base attributes of our native lands? So, be watching for 'regional reviews' (regional being the term applied to independent films before there was an independent movement) and enjoy.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
I'm a very streaky movie-watcher. When organizing my queue in Netflix or deciding what movie to see, I usually follow my admiration for the autuer theory. This means that when I see a given film from a certain director, I become almost obsessed with watching everything this particular director has done (which causes me much pain when I'm dealing with someone like Johnny To or Francisco Rosi or Edward Yang... artists who are typically under-represented on home video/DVD formats). So, my recent obsession has carried me to the work of Sidney Lumet. Granted, there are 20 or so Lumet films available on DVD, but many more are not. For every "The Hill", there's no "The Deadly Affair", and there's his lackluster "Deathtrap" but no "Daniel". Still, this is Thanksgiving and I suppose I should give thanks to the 20 or so various titles that are available (which total infinitely more than the above mentioned Rosi).
The latest work from Lumet, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a stunning return to form that feels like one of his early Tennessee Williams family-meltdown pot-boilers, complete with cheating wives, vain brothers and the nuclear family in complete disarray. Throw in a botched robbery, drug abuse and Marisa Tomei baring it all in virtually every scene she's in, and you've got a magnificent downer of a film that pulses with dread and defeatism. The film's structure, charted out by "day of", "3 days before robbery" etc. for each character adds a great deal of subtext to the film as shifting perspectives are exposed, motives are given more insight and consequences are heavily weighted. Still, this is a genre picture and its done with Lumet's usual flair for nonchalance. Long takes allow the actors to "act" and Lumet's use of the new Hi-Def format allow him the ability to crawl around the various New York apartments with little pretension (featuring one incredibly well-staged long shot in an apartment with Philip Seymour Hoffman that, at first, baffles the viewer with the scene's motivation but sets up a later confrontation). The acting is uniformly high-wire and frantic as the robbery goes horribly awry and one begins to get the sense that Lumet is most comfortable with guys burning at their wits end (see "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Prince of the City" for further evidence) and Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are more than up for the challenge. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" proves that age has no bias in the business of movie-making.
Lumet's 1982 film, "The Verdict" also presents a man at his lowest point, this time featuring Paul Newman as an alcoholic 'ambulance-chasing' lawyer given his biggest chance to do something good when he accepts a malpractice case against the Catholic Church and one of their care facilities. I'd seen "The Verdict" years ago, but its verbal wittiness (scripted by David Mamet) and tight-fisted, sure direction by Lumet flowed over my head until this second viewing. I can't think of a more austere (and telling) opening shot in his work than the image of a silhouetted Newman playing pinball against a large bar room window... an image Lumet would revisit several times in the film, revealing a slow shift inside the lawyer's persona. He starts out at the bottom and rises to something noble and when the courtroom finally appears in this 'courtroom drama' over 2/3 of the way into it, it crackles with tension and suspense.I guess a film about survival in the courtroom as a metaphor for survival in life shouldn't be a surprise when we're talking about the director of "12 Angry Men".
"The Hill", filmed in 1965 and starring Sean Connery, aims its sights on military abuse when five soldiers are court-martialed and sent to a British military prison. The fight against corrupted forces only comes in the final 20 minutes of the film. The rest of the affair is spent observing the grueling punishment as the soldiers are forced to march up and down the sandy hill in the center of the camp as well as the verbal dissolution that's hammered into each soldier. One of the beauties of all of Lumet's films is how careful he is with structure and detail of the milieu his film is investigating. In "the Hill", so much time is spent on the destruction of man via artificial elements (the hill, the staff sergeant's baton, robotic commands of 'march' and 'on the double') that one gets lulled into the same hypnotic rhythms that imprisons the soldiers. Also, this film features some of the most fluid tracking shots you'll ever see. And the ending is a stunner, complete with an abrupt cut to black and the idea that good most certainly won't triumph over evil.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Going on over at The House Next Door is a revealing and interesting discussion of the film coupled with an eloquent understanding of the film by chief editor Matt Zoller Seitz. Now that more and more people are getting a chance to see this film (with even more coming when it opens wide this week), the discussion is getting down right philosophical. Add to the fire are some of my own thoughts on a second viewing:
1. The theme of the film?- In my original capsule review, I stated ""No Country For Old Men" is a bleak, devastating and even puzzling meditation on lawlessness during the West Texas of 1980. There are so many executions and shoot-outs on desolate small-town streets and cheap motels that one begins to wonder if there's anyone left in the universe except Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem)" That seems to be the purpose. In fact, if anything, "No Country For Old Men" is not about Chigurh or Moss at all. This is really the story of Tommy Lee Jones' world weary sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, and the swift changes politically, finanicially and especially morally in the world in 1980. The violent battles between Moss and Anton could be read as metaphors for the erupting violence that was becoming commonplace in the world. They represent the forces of good and evil and Tommy Lee Jones is simply the "conscientious observer", to take a phrase from the Coen Brothers other masterpiece.
2. Much has been made of the (non) ending- Since, as established in the first point, that "No Country For Old Men" is not about the resolution of 'catching' Chigurh rather than the acceptance of Sheriff Bell that his service in this particular time and place has passed him by, the ending is rather fitting. Of course, its not an ending that 95% of the movie-going audience will want to see since we're a culture that demands neat, tidy, sensible resolutions when in fact life hardly ever resembles anything nice or tidy or sensible. It's such a shocking cut to the titles, though, that it does shake the viewer out of comprehension from the dream being verbalized by Sheriff Bell on-screen and it causes those words to linger in the memory much longer than anticipated. If only more films would trade favorable endings for something more haunting.
3. The fate of Lewellyn Moss- As I mentioned in the comments section at The House Next Door, "What I found the most intriguing about the film's refusal to glorify or even depict the death of Moss was that suspicious slow fade out as he turns down the offer of beers. Upon first viewing, I had no idea of what was about to come, but that slow fade-out felt so... unnatural based on the film's reliance on other modes of cutting. Upon second viewing, the fade-out felt so right, as if the curtain is slowly drawing on a remarkable performance and a worthy adversary to Bardem's whirlwind presence." This is nothing unusual... the Coen Brothers have been eliminating a main character with a single cut for over a decade now (remember the woodchipper in "Fargo"). But in "No Country For Old Men", the ending for Moss is more abrupt and brutal since he's been fighting so well for over 80% of the movie. But again, in the moral vaccuum that is West Texas of 1980, no one is allowed to get out alive.
4. Those dreams and the fate of Chigurh- On a second viewing, the dreams described by Sheriff Bell clearly represent the vast divide from when his father served as a law-man to now. And much has been made of the final scene with Chigurh, a moment that seems to describe Chigurh will continue on as a ghost, dealing out punishment as he sees fit, touched by humanity only through a coincidental car crash.
Every year there's one film that gets us movie-geeks going, and this year that film is "No Country For Old Men".
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
After recently watching (and being extremely moved) by Kon Ichikawa's "The Burmese Harp", here's a few minutes from the film. Not only is it a grand and humane presentation of World War 2, but it features one of the most moving soundtracks I could imagine in a film. Scored by Akira Ifukube, his magical compositions (sampled lightly in the above clip) provide heart-rendering overtures to the subtle emotions on screen. Rent this Criterion disc right away.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
This discussion (both between Quint and Jason as well as the host of twenty-somethings on IMDB) is a great microcosm of the weird images and feelings that imbed themselves in us as children- primarily through our early introduction to sound, images and ideas via film, television, books, comics and cartoons. Though I can't say I ever watched "The Peanut Butter Solution" and allowed its eerie charm to burrow inside my pre-cognitive mind, there were several other films that still haunt me to this day. Now, I'm not talking about horror films because that's, basically, their purpose and an easy dart to throw. What kid wouldn't be freaked out by their first forays into that genre? I'm looking for unintentional films that disturbed one due to their subject matter, images or lack of understanding the film's ideas. I don't usually do this, but this topic really interests me so I'd love as many comments as possible and spread the word!
1. Pete's Dragon- I still can't watch this film because of the unbearable sadness it caused me as a child. I guess this is my "Bambi", a film that's meant to be cute and adorable in its animation yet introduced me to the horrors of the real world waaaay too early.
2. Something Wicked This Way Comes- For the life of me, I can't understand how Disney marketed this so gleefully to kids (which seems to be a common theme among these films as evident in the IMDB chat board, as so many films people list as nightmarish were observed on the Disney channel). The dread and blackness in this film confused me as a child, and upon a later viewing when older, it was only then did I understand how hellish the scenario was. This was hell coming to town. Nice work, Disney.
3. Time Bandits- As if midg.... uhh vertically challenged people weren't freaky enough for children, you throw in the bizarre fetishes of director Terry Gilliam and this film is utterly disturbing. The only parts I remember now include that deep, demonic voice and the whirlwhind portal that opens up and sucks everyone in. I'm sure there were more disturbing images, but I've blocked them out.
4. The NeverEnding Story- Besides being tragically sad, alot of this film's mystical narrative flew right over my head and made me feel like ANY place that could exist in my imagination would ultimately end as dark, scary and unreturnable. I loved reading the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia as a young boy, and while those were slightly more uplifting, this film combined with those stories made me very afraid of things not grounded in reality.
5. Escape To Witch Mountain- There was something very frightening and incomprehensible to me about these children who could control things with their mind. I vividly remember going to school after seeing this movie and wondering if any classmates had this ability, and that really scared me.
6. Return To Oz- Words can barely describe the terror this film instilled in me. Whether it was the idea of a girl being in a mental institution (which I had no gravity as to the sadness of this predicament) or the sinister other creatures, I'm thinking about re-watching this film on a more level headed playing field to see how screwed up it is for children.
7. Nightmares- Ok, so why was a ten year old watching a film called "Nightmares"? No idea. Blame my parents for leaving me alone with a full subscription to HBO. The one part of this film I remember was the bit with a guy (who I just discovered was Emilio Estevez, wow) playing a video game and then the giant floating head coming to life and chasing him. As a kid who would blow his $3 allowance each Friday night at the mall arcade, this shook me up.
8. Invaders From Mars- This was probably my first introduction to the Body Snatcher phenomenon, but certain images are so vivid- a teacher eating frog legs, the non plussed look on the parents faces etc. I was pretty worrisome as a child anyways, so the thought of my parents turning into something non-responsive and uncaring pushed me over the edge.
Ok.. give me time and more will come to me. Now it's your turn.....
Saturday, November 10, 2007
"No Country For Old Men" is a bleak, devastating and even puzzling meditation on lawlessness during the West Texas of 1980. There are so many executions and shoot-outs on desolate small-town streets and cheap motels that one begins to wonder if there's anyone left in the universe except Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). One could almost mistake (and substitute) the apocalyptic-ravaged terrain from Cormac McCarthy's other novel, "The Road", while watching "No Country For Old Men". This is filmmaking of a higher order, styled to pitch-perfect precision in lighting, framing, dialogue and editing. And speaking of editing, its a film that carries forward the Coen Brothers proclivity for creating gaps in time and for losing main characters with the touch of a fade out. That's one aspect of this film that will most likely alienate some viewers. And, to be honest, my first impression of the film after walking out of the theater was that hype had suffocated the energy out of "No Country For Old Men" and prepared me for something "classic" in terms of genre, when in fact its a film that certainly disobeys the rules of formal narrative, character closure and identifiable 'hero worship'. It's only in reflection a day or so later that the film's ambiguous final scene as well as its stubbornness to neatly wrap up the conflicting forces of good and evil begin to sink in- this is a film about something more than the cat and mouse game played between the rube Texas boy, vicious killer and sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). And there's definitely something more to the film's opening monologue by Jones as well as the explanation of two dreams in the film's disarming final scene. "No Country For Old Men" begs a second (and third) viewing before allowing all of its subtext to creep inside your head. If part of the problem lies in the fact that "No Country For Old Men" is being sold as a dark neo-western noir, then allow me to be the first to say ignore the genre tropes (even though they are staged so well in visual and audible terms) and focus on the undercurrents of shifting time in a landscape (West Texas) represenative of enormous moral and financial change (1980). This is a film that will stay with you for days.
Lions For Lambs
I've always admired Robert Redford and while "Lions For Lambs" doesn't always succeed in it's roundabout manner of lament for our current place and occupation in the Third World, stretches of the film do work well. I could've done without the smarmy word battle between Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise, portraying a character with a name that feels out of touch with real world as well as his age) and done more with the engaging relationship between two athletes (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) who gave up their bright futures for an ice holiday on an Afghan mountaintop. And when their grand moment comes, there's a nice bit of editing that shows exactly what they've given up in more ways than one. "Lions For Lambs" is a noble effort, but not more than that.
Friday, November 09, 2007
2. I like Denzel Washington alot, and he does exude confidence as the film's heavy, but its a rather ordinary performance because he does this so well. He does bad things every few scenes to re-iterate he's the 'bad guy' which feels like an excuse for true character development.
3. On the other hand, Crowe is damn good in this, revealing a little bit of a beer gut and acting with modulation as the seedy 70's New Jersey/New York vibes roll by. The scene in the courtroom challenging his wife's custody of their son is some of his best acting yet.
4. This is Ridley Scott's best film in years; and that coming from a non-Ridley fan.
5. The shoot-out scene towards the end of the film got my pulse beating, even if it's a little too "hand-heldy" for my personal taste. Whatever happened to letting the action play itself out in creative staging rather than quick cutting and dizzy camera spins?
6. Chiwetel Ejiofor is left with very little to do. That's a shame.
7. I love the twist of irony that eventually brings police scrutiny raining upon the head of Denzel's character. It reminded me of the insignificant detail that blew open "The French Connection" case years earlier. I admire how intelligence, observation and good old fashioned gut instinct steamrolls into something significant. Only the best cops have it.
8. And speaking of the procedural part of this film, I liked the pace of "American Gangster"- not only does it give time to Denzel's ingenious method of importing drugs into the country, but the film pays attention to the dogged perserverance exhibited by the good guys (including great supporting turns by John Hawkes, RZA, Yul Vasquez and Ted Levine). It's no "Zodiac" but its a worthy entry into my favorite "police procedural" genre of film.
9. I'm shocked that a 3 hour film made such a killing at the box office. Maybe there's hope.... wait, last time I checked "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" was still tanking.
10. I guess there was something good to come out of the camradarie of Ridley Scott and Crowe from "A Good Year".
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
The best "Batman" movie of the series, "Batman Begins" suits the HD-DVD transfer magnificently. Director Christopher Nolan juggles a multi-time narrative with panache and the settings (the ice mountains of an Asian country, a shadowy dojo, the dark nether-regions of an infested urban metropolis) glisten with clarity. This is quite a nightmarish vision and, certainly, a dark movie in more ways than one. With the Hi-Def transfer, the dark is opened up and it avoids the splotchy shadows that invades your typical 'black' on film. The sequence towards the end of the film, when Scarecrow (played to hammy villianness by Cillian Murphy) unleashes his psychotic image-inducing gas on Gotham is especially vibrant in the way Hi-Def layers the pixel quality for full maximum effect. Bottom line, my last viewing of "Batman Begins" was in the movie theater in 35MM and this film just looks better on HD.
Another terrific transfer belongs to Lawrence Kasdan's epic 3 hour plus western, "Wyatt Earp". While a litttle too much time is spent on the early days of Earp, the visual quality is outstanding. It's pretty damn hard to beat the wide open vistas that most westerns place front and center, but with "Wyatt Earp" this was my first experience of seeing these expansive landscapes in the new format. There are several shots here that blew me away with color and definition. A seemingly throwaway shot, there's a simple lateral pan outside of a cabin where a flower garden is growing and the color is breathtaking. It's the small moments like these that make me appreciate the precision of Hi-Def.
Lady In the Water
M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady In the Water" pretty much got hammered about the box office due to bad word of mouth from audiences and critics. I'm definitely in the minority, but I've always thought it was a moving and entertaining fairy tale. But between this venture and the failed "The Village" from a few years earlier, these two films have pretty much sidelined him as a major player in Hollywood. As far as the Hi-Def transfer goes, it's largey unremarkable. I notice very few differences between this version and the standard DVD format. Christopher Doyle's cinematography seems ripe for Hi-def exploitation, but the film's images feel flat and desaturated. Shyamalan is known for his creative use of color, and even that's barely explored in the transfer. Disappointment.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
2. Fires On the Plain- Follow up viewing to Kon Ichikawa's previous war film "The Burmese Harp".
3. Jackson County Jail- Featuring the first performance of Tommy Lee Jones, this southern-friend exploitation flick received some nice word of mouth after the "Grindhouse" double feature earlier this year.Looking forward to checking it out.
4. Sombre- Philippe Grandieux's psychological thriller about a serial killer in the backwoods of France. I've heard very little about this one, but the advertisement in Film Comment piqued my interest. If it's anything like previous French horror flicks such as "Haute Tension", I expect something very cool.
5. Woman Is the Future of Man- I've been delighted with the 3 other Hong Sang Soo films I've seen, and every cinephile owes it to themselves to check out this under appreciated directors work. His films are so delicate in their structure and overwhelming in their simple power. I'm still hunting for a copy of his first film, "The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well", so any ideas are welcome.
6. The Hill- Early Sidney Lumet film released a few weeks ago.
7. Sympathy For the Underdog- It seems like there are so many Kinji Fukasaku films, they're lingering in my queue with no end. This "action-packed crime drama centers on aging Yakuza Gunji (Koji Tsuruta), a fighter who lives by a code no longer honored by Tokyo's new breed of ruthless gangs. Released from prison after 10 years, Gunji regroups his old gang and rebuilds his crime empire in Okinawa. Gunji's whiskey trade is a success, but he's forced into a bloody battle with rival mainland gangsters."
8. Battle Royale 2- I rewatched "Battle Royale" last week and find that to be such an amazing piece of cult cinema. It's dropped off the radar a little, but not only is its kid-on-kid violence still unsettling, but Takeshi Kitano's performance grows better and better on repeat viewings. Just watch how that final scene plays out with him as he answers his cell afterbeing shot 22 times. I've yet to see this sequel.
9. Holy Mountain- With the release of several Alejandro Jodorowsky films on DVD earlier this year, I think I'll begin my retrospective of this experimental filmmakers career. I've seen his early 90's film "Santa Sangre" and watched with what-the-hell-is-goin-on trepidation, so I wonder if time has been kind to this out there artist. No better time than the present to give him a shot.
10. Honor Among Thieves- I'm not entirely sure how I cam about this film. It may have been one of Harry Knowles' DVD lists or a long lost recommendation from a fellow cineast, but this 70's Charles Bronson film places him in Algeria after the war where he discovers a vault with 3 million dollars. I haven't seen the film yet, but you can bet your ass Bronson ends up with the money!
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
I'd be interested in reading the graphic novel this film is based on. I'm not a huge fan of those types of writing, but they seem to offer an intriguing and entertaining outlook on weary genre tales (such as "From Hell" and even "Sin City", a film that I admired more than actually liked). Certain scenes in "30 Days of Night" feel tailor-made for the square frame images that a comic graphic novel would highlight... the image of a man and woman sitting on the crest of a snowy hill as the sun rises up or the close-up of a Renfield-like face filling the frame. Also, the violence in this film strongly reverberates. I couldn't count on one hand the number of beheadings (one of which is shown in shocking close-up as the head hangs loosely attached to the body by veins and arteries) or brutal tears into chunks of skin. There's even the beheading of a little girl vampire that most films would cut away from. "30 Days of Night" almost celebrates in it. I'm surprised there weren't more edits needed for
an R rating.
And to mention the vampires themselves. These are some of the most visually terrifying vampires ever imagined. Trust me, they aren't your grandparents vampires, the suave and pale faced vampires of Hammer (no offense). The vampires in "30 Days of Night" are something new and ferocious. Led by Danny Huston, they embody the features of classical and modern vampire traits, meshing the pale faced simplicity of "Nosferatu" with the bone breaking ferocity of the zombies in "28 Days Later". Not only do they drink blood, but due to their angled and sharp teeth, these are creatures that tear and violate the skin like hungry wolves. These vampires mean business and it lends an air of brutality to their gorge-fest. You actually want the heroes (Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Mark Boone Junior and a host of others) to not get caught by this primal group. And if a filmmaker gets that right, then you've won half the battle of audience involvement.
"30 Days of Night" actually gave me nightmares after seeing this movie, although in all fairness to my man-card, I was sleeping in a hotel room that same night so my bearings of common ground were waaaay off. Still, that's a major success for a horror movie. I rarely get disturbed by this genre of film and when it does happen, then I know its something special. This is a great entry into our vampire movie genre and a nice way to spend Halloween week at the movies. It's also nice to see a non 'torture porn' flick getting some cred at the box office this time of year, although it looks like the 103rd or whatever number of "Saw" raked in the dough. Sad.
And don't forget to check out the unveiled 31 Films That Give You the Willies list.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
In a video taped interview, Abel Ferrara was asked what motivated him and he replied (in his usual droll, gravelly tone) that he got up each morning, and that was all the motivation he needed. If that was an honest reply, and not endemic of his cantankerous presence around interviews and media types, then that motivation was about to be put to the test.
After "The Funeral" in 1996, Ferrara saw major studio funding come to a halt. Whether it was his disheveled working attitude or the public's waning attention in his pessimistic and hard-bitten tales, Ferrara began shopping his ideas overseas. It didn't take long to find international financing, and in an oddly positive way, this separation from studio money allowed Ferrara to open his films up more. As is often the case, European backing gives more freedom to creative artists, and Ferrara was not one to let the grass grow beneath his feet. Starting in 1997 with "The Blackout" his films became more loose and experimental, basing their stories in mood and idea rather than pragmatic narratives. Whether his visions were following an addicted Hollywood director through a maze of booze, drugs and (possibly) murder, or documenting the mostly mundane world of Puerto Rican drug selling in New York, Ferrara dispensed with old styles and invented new ones. While this phase of his career is no better or worse than the rest, it surely has been the one less seen by the movie-going public.
"The Blackout" was accepted to the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and that was the largest audience the film received before living its life on home video. Mostly fascinating for its introduction to Ferrara's new visual applications (namely the Avid editor that allows more freedom than traditional editing devices), "The Blackout" is nonetheless a maddening experience in every way possible. Starring Matthew Modine as Matty, a hot shot Hollywood director, he decamps to Miami to pick up his relationship with French actress Annie (Beatrice Dalle). When she leaves him due to his excessive drug and alcohol addiction, Matty goes on a bender with fellow artist Micky (a truly bat-shit crazy turn by Dennis Hopper) and meets a nice waitress also named Annie (Sarah Lassez). Matty blacks out and we're transported 18 months after this night where Matty is back in New York and married to Claudia Shiffer. But images of murder continually creep into Matty's subconscious. Add to his depression that Annie may have been pregnant and had an abortion, and Matty returns to Miami to figure out what happened during his drug-induced blackout. Ferrara's attraction to problem-addled directors (including Keitel's sexually conflicted turn in "Dangerous Game) is clearly a theme Ferrara wants to explore. Here, we're given multiple sides to the director-as-a-personality and neither Modine nor Hopper give much hope to this profession. One continually escapes reality through abuse and the other is completely lost in the fabrication and creation of his video/film- even obsessed enough to allow murder to not compromise his artistic vision. "The Blackout" is a very dark portrayal of filmmaking. While it's not widely celebrated as a success, its a film that works well in mood. It's here that Ferrara began to play with the slow dissolve rather than cut, and those slow lurid transitions highlight the splintered dementia of Matty. Certainly the most dream-like of all his films, "The Blackout" is also Ferrara's "Vertigo", or more specifically his "Lost Highway", a film also released in 1997 that paints time and memory with the same nightmarish brush. Hammered by most critics, "The Blackout" fared even worse on home video where its production company chose to immortalize the 10 second scene within the film where Matty and Mickey join two drug selling brunettes who get high with them and make out together. Their lesbian embrace was used as the cover art for the release on VHS and DVD, further marginalizing Ferrara as a purveyor of cheap sleaze. "The Blackout" deserved better.
The very next year Ferrara produced "New Rose Hotel" and his strike-out with a large release was again noticeable. I'm not sure if a crowd would've helped this film any. Starring Christopher Walken and two names that would re-appear 10 years later in "Go- Go Tales", Willem DaFoe and Asia Argento, "New Rose Hotel" is a muddled and visually cluttered tale of corporate espionage in a futuristic setting. Adapted from a short story by William Gibson, the film wallows in dreamy slow motion shots and exhaustive dialogue that fails to energize any of the plot points.
Ferrara rebounded just three years later with the release of "R-Xmas", capitalizing on the success of HBO's "The Sopranos" and landing lead roles for Drea de Matteo and Lillio Brancato as, simply, the Husband and the Wife, who lead perfectly upscale New York lives, purchasing the hottest Christmas presents for their daughter and happily dancing with friends and family on Christmas Eve. But there's a dark side to their existence as Ferrara follows them to a separate apartment where they methodically cut and store cocaine for their lucrative drug business. One of his best films in years, "R-Xmas" is a simple documentation of the mundane details of this couple's lives- that is until Ice T shows up and kidnaps the Husband, bribing the Wife for all the money they have. From that halfway point in the film, Ferrara's leisurely focus shifts into a tense, unrelenting quest as the Wife attempts to gather all the money she can. The stylistic choices of Ferrara return to form; there are the long medium shots, strategically placed on the corners of the various New York apartments so a seemingly innocent pan can follow the characters around in medium shot for minutes at a time. Over a third of the film follows the Husband's Puerto Rican accomplices (one of whom is played by Ferrara regular Victor Argo) as they speak in their native tongue, non-subtitled and all. And Ferrara's fascination with the dissolve over the hard cut permeates every inch of the film, creating images that linger against one another in poetic fashion. There's a raw authenticity to the entire film that pulsates even before the tempo is upped by the kidnapping plot device. It's a strong film that was highly regarded by New York critics, but found little fanfare with anyone else.
Around 2003, Ferrara moved from New York to Rome where he now calls home. Both of his next two films were created on the legendary Cinecitta sound stages. "Mary", concerning a filmmaker's passion to create a film about Mary Magdalene that comes crashing down around him (starring Matthew Modine in what sounds like yet another brutal analogy of movie-making as a profession) and this year's "Go Go Tales" were written about widely at their various festival debuts. Both have their strong supporters and their adamant detractors. The polarization of his work continues to this day. While "Go Go Tales" has yet to be released outside of Cannes, there is talk of this film being released on an independent scale early in '08. Being hailed as Ferrara's ode to Cassavetes and "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie", its most talked about aspect is the fact that actress Asia Argento plays a stripper whose on-stage antics include french kissing a rottweiler. It's nice to know Ferrara hasn't softened in his old age.
It's been rumored that Ferrara is currently in pre-production on a prequel to "King of New York". Whether that return to the mean streets of New York is needed to elevate him back into the public consciousness remains to be seen. Whether this film makes it to American shores or not, it's good to know that Ferrara has not given up. As long as he continues to create personal works, I'll continue to respect and admire a vision that represents truths hardly seen on the movie screen. The idea that a filmmaker can create disturbing, alienating works is certainly reasonable. There are many filmmakers whose visions I don't enjoy. But with Ferrara, the collision of disturbing images, messy and improvised moments, and uncomfortable themes of Catholic guilt make him even more interesting. His films have carved a special space out of recognizable territory. White it's easy to revoke his films for their informal style and messy composition, it's less than easy to shake the power of his message. We're all fucked up in some way and redemption is just around the corner for those who choose to accept it. His characters are often addicted and malicious personalities, but they reveal shades of hope as well. It's all in how you perceive things. Here's to hoping we get another 17 films from Abel Ferrara.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 1 here.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Gone Baby Gone
"Gone Baby Gone", the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, is imbued with a strong sense of local favor and the film succeeds best when its focused on the drunken, belligerent recesses of shoddy Boston pubs and hangouts. As a moral thriller though, it's less impactful than Eastwood's treatment on crime and punishment ("Mystic River", also from a Dennie Lehane novel) and Affleck is certainly not as deft in handling the film's complex deviations. There's one shoot-out scene in particular that feels clumsy and patched together without any real sense of logistical placement (i.e. after being chased up a flight of stairs and shot at, why would someone just lean against the door they just ran behind.... why not shoot through it?). Also, there are several overlapping pieces of dialogue that feel rushed, as if Affleck and company were running out of ways to present the film's tumultuous twists and turns with pace and clarity. While there are strong individual moments (namely the performance of Casey Affleck and Ed Harris), "Gone Baby Gone" is ultimately underwhelming in its sledgehammer approach in explaining the moral complexities of its individuals. Do we really need all those flashbacks to fill in the narrative blanks? And while novelist Lehane is most assuredly capable of grasping the more subtle -and deadly- undercurrents of denouements (think of that final shattering scene in "Mystic River"), that subtlety is gone in this film. Less is certainly more.
More of a curiosity for being the first feature length film to tackle our presence in Iraq post 9-11, "The Situation" allows director Philip Haas to handle the various conflicts with determination and intelligence. This is more about the mosaic of people who dot the dusty landscape rather than a war movie (though there is some well staged violence in the final moments). Starring Connie Nielsen as a journalist covering the bloodshed, she finds herself mixed up in love triangle between CIA operative Dan (Damian Lewis) and optimistic fellow journalist Zaid (Mido Hamada). Make no mistake- while "The Situation" contrives such a melodramatic predicament, it's very smart about the internal politics of the region and the hatred that boils over when several factions of religious groups vie for control. It's also a very sharp dissection of military ambivalence towards unchecked aggression. Haas (whose previous films include the well made "Angels and Insects" from 1995 and "Up at the Villa" in 2000) takes a stance on his feelings about this period in our history, but "The Situation" also examines the conflict from opposing sides which lends the film an unusually respectful tone. This honesty stems from the personal experience of journalist Wendell Steavenson who co-wrote the script. And Nielsen is spectacular.
"Rendition" straddles the line between good and not-so-good, presenting yet another view about post 9-11 hypocrisy and policy making that features A-list actors banging out solid (yet ordinary) actions. We understand who'll be vindicated and who'll have a change of black heart halfway through. A-list stars hate portraying anything except the eventual savior, right? But there is one expertly crafted surprise in "Rendition" that takes place out of context with the bureaucratic superiority of the film's main plotline. Throughout the film, we learn and follow the daughter of Abasi, played by Zineb Oukach. I figured out fairly early on what the plot twist with her boyfriend Khalid would lead to and it felt unnecessary at the time. But director Gavin Hood doesn't tilt his hand until the very end, and when that realization comes, it doesn't feel like a gimmick, but a wisely structured motivation for the actions of father Abasi. Ultimately, "Rendition" is about two families and the consequences of religion and politics on both. I would've liked to experience more with the family of Abasi and Fatima, but since "Rendition" is more about the injustice to a perfect and rich Chicago family, the details of the more interesting family are left to fill in the cracks.
One can't deny the poetic rat-a-tat-tat delivery of much of Tony Gilroy's script for "Michael Clayton" and, up until the final 10 minutes, I felt like this film was headed for something special. Not only do Clooney/Wilkinson/Swinton embrace every scene with head-on authenticity and lack of vanity, but Gilroy's direction is crisp and well-structured. But then the end- and it comes as a whimper instead of a bang. This is territory done before in numerous legal thrillers and while "Michael Clayton" hides its blandness in rich dialogue that comes in clipped speeds, it's still holds a been-there-done-that feeling. Perhaps the hype killed this one for me.
The Darjeeling Limited
After all the aforementioned somber affairs, I needed some light-heartedness. It'd be easy to rail against Anderson for refusing to grow up and pushing his cinematic visions forward, but that's a lazy complaint. There are plenty of modern filmmakers who tackle a given subject two/three times over in various environments and milieus (I'm thinking of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and even Werner Herzog). It's not how many times they do it, but how well they do it. And "The Darjeeling Limited" does it very well. A great bonus to seeing this film was the inclusion of Anderson's 12 minute short, "Hotel Chevalier" before the main feature, humorously established through a title that read "A Short Film- to be seen before the feature". Not only does it prepare us, visually, for Anderson's rigorously constructed mise-en-scene, but it enriches the upcoming story due to its attention to the human interaction that all three brothers eventually run away from. There's talk about their lives back home, such as the upcoming birth of a baby for 1 brother and the attempted suicide of the other, but rarely does Anderson ever show us physical glimpses of that fear. Think of the humor provided behind the death of Ben Stiller's wife in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as he ritualized his fire escape plan or the many occurrences of fatherly abandonment there and in "The Life Aquatic". In "Hotel Chevalier", it may be a slight example, but the motivation for Schwartzman to run away is there and it creates a secondary world outside of "The Darjeelings Limited" exotic and at times cartoonish landscape. The references to "Hotel Chevalier" continue to creep up in the later longer film, but its not necessary to understanding (or appreciating) "The Darjeeling Limited". As expected, the three brothers' trip exposes them to human sadness, sexuality, and remorseful memories and it probably buries deeper into sadness than any previous Wes Anderson film. There's a well handled lapse into darker territory about halfway through "The Darjeeling Limited", and the way Anderson confronts this shift proves that he's growing as a filmmaker. Stylistically, one will immediately recognize the aesthetics of the film. The detailed colors, the pop soundtrack, the lateral camera moves as well as the whip pans substituting for cuts- its not a huge departure but its still effective. "The Darjeeling Limited" will please those who admire the previous whimsy of Anderson and hopefully attract a new audience unfamiliar with his vibrant outlook on the world.
Day Night Day Night
This is a superb film. Imagine what the Dardennes Brothers would do with the story of a female terrorist going through the motions of her last 2 days on earth before carrying out a suicide bombing in Times Square, and you begin to scratch the surface of Julia Loktev's spellbinding feature. Riveting from first scene to last, actress Luisa Williams lays everything on the screen as the camera perches just over her shoulder or cements her face dead-center. There's one scene in particular, that builds to unbearable tension, then releases us over the edge just to delay the tension more. Not only is Loktev's camera penetrating, but her commentary on modern times intelligent. See this one if you can.
Things We Lost In the Fire
I love the films of Susanne Bier and found her previous 2007 film, "After the Wedding" to be one of the best of this year. "Things We Lost In the Fire", her latest release, continues her fascination with suburban ennui and tragic circumstance by placing Halle Berry at the receiving end of a murdered husband (David Duchovney), two precocious children and her dead husband's heroin-junkie best friend (Benicio DelToro). It's not that the film is bad by any means, just less emotionally damaging than her previous efforts. Perhaps something was truly lost in translation as this is her first English language film. Still, it's a film that avoids the easy narrative plot holes and Del Toro is remarkable. I found myself much more involved with the relationship of Duchovney and Del Toro than anything else in the film, though. Their relationship is nicely sketched out. Duchovney continues to care for his best friend, show up for his birthday and buy him groceries when everyone else is ready to carve his name on a tombstone. We all bring our own experiences and recollections into a film, and this relationship hit home especially. I've dealt with a similar friendship, seeing a best friend become disillusioned and sink into addiction. He'll drop off the radar and it'll be months before I hear from him again (as is currently the case now). All I can do is hope he's found a stable girlfriend and not lapse into a darker environment. When everyone else (including members of his own family and our own old circle of friends) has written him off, nothing will change our friendship. "Things We Lost In the Fire" observes this same type of friendship with clarity and it overshadows the more central relationship between Berry and Del Toro later. I wanted less of that and Duchovney to live longer with his junkie friend.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Friday, October 19, 2007
It may take a few viewings to fully appreciate the above clip, so allow me some backstory. One of my favorite radio stations here in Dallas, 1310 The Ticket, is a sportstalk radio station that spends more time cutting up and talking about movies and current events rather than sports. Basically, they keep me company about 6 hours a day. One of their guys, Tom Gribble, performed an interview as a joke about 2 years ago- the kicker is that he asked his question during the post game interview in the style of a "1920's Reporter Guy", using expressions like 'the bees knees'. This turned into a regular schtick, and in the last 2 years, he's maneuvered his way into post game interviews with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Peyton Manning, Shaq, and his latest victims, Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady. These are hilarious sound bytes, and even better when you see them on video. If you do a search on YouTube for "1920's reporter guy", you can see and hear just a few. Just sit back and admire the way he begins each question with "champ.. champ" or "coach.. coach" and watch the confusion begin.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
In the finest spirit of the Halloween season,Ed Hardy Jr. at his blog has posted the official 181 titlesthat make up the final ballot for 'the 31 films that give you the willies'. This is the culmination of over 60 ballots from fellow bloggers, and all the films listed received at least one mention on three ballots. I'll be casting my final vote soon, but in the meantime, as is the usual custom with all Internet balloting, there's no secrecy in the accumulation (I hope). Here is my ballot for the 31 films that truly give me the willies:
31. Silent Hill- Say what you want about this hackneyed crap-fest, director Christophe Gans knows how to build nightmarish tension from sets. Just thinking about that thing wrapped in barb wire in the toilet and the mannequin nurses that swing knives based on sound give me the creeps. Too bad the story didn't live up to the visual vibrancy.
30. Nightmare on Elm Street- Released right at the height of my adolescent years, this was that ONE movie that friends and I would try to sneak peaks at while at each others house, but could never make it through for parental interruption (yes, folks, horror movies were my porn). When I finally did see it, it was just as scary as I'd imagined.
29. Tales From the Crypt- Remember this late 70's movie featuring a hit and run driver ("Thanks for the ride, lady!!!!"), and the story about a woman who makes a wish after her husband's death, and she's forced to live with his terrifying screams because she wished from him alive AFTER being embalmed? That really gives me the willies...
28. Near Dark- Katheryn Bigelow's vampire tale is as stylish as it is scary, but nonetheless, it packs a resonate punch.
27. Hellraiser- Along the same time as "Nightmare on Elm Street", forbidden horror movie for a 13 year old.
26. Legend of Hell House- One of my dad's favorite movies, and a pretty creepy haunted house story.
25. The Eye- One of the first J-Horror films I saw in the theater and the big screen only emphasizes the tension in this film because you can't hide from the flickers at the edge of the screen. Their later efforts have been disappointing, but in this one, the Pang Brothers knew how to elicit fear from things in the background and quick reflections.
24. The Beyond- Lucio Fulci's outrageous and hallucinogenic treat.
23. The Others- Very atmospheric and moody and a great full theater experience.
22. Rosemary's Baby- Probably the master of psychological horror, Polanski's masterpiece is a slow boil, but when the denouement finally hits, it still sends shivers through me today.
21. Slither- The most recent film on this list, James Gunn's film about body snatchers is more fun than scary, but it also revs up the gore to unbearable levels and I won't soon forget some of its grisly images.
20. The Tenant- Another slow-boil from Polanski, and a film that still deserves another viewing from me to fully understand what the hell's goin on, but its undeniably a textured, atmospheric thriller (sensing a trend here?)
19. Audition- Vengeful lovers and acupuncture needles. That's all I need to say....
18. Prince of Darkness- An under appreciated Carpenter flick that I'm very glad to see made the final ballot. One of the more skin-crawling accounts of satanism on celluloid.
17. The Brood- Ohh god those little things in the snowsuits are terrifying enough, but then you've got all the usual Cronenberg undertones to make this film even more unsettling.
16. Shivers- Dare I call it the most blatant AIDS film ever?
15. Nosferatu- Black and white... Max Schreck... was he really a vampire? The back story to Murnau's silent epic is legendary, and the film is equally disconcerting. One of the first (and best) takes on the vampire tale ever.
14. In the Mouth of Madness- Several Carpenter films will make the list, just not the one I'm sure everyone expects. This tale of a writer going through hell rocked me to the core when I first saw it. The scene of a boy on a bike at night time... you have to see it to believe it.
13. The Shining- Ahh those lovely low angle shots of the red headed twins. Is there a more definitive example of giving the willies?
12. The Haunting- The Wise original, this 1963 classic earns its reputation. That final scene, of a face in the attic, literally gave me nightmares for several days afterwards.
11. The Thing- Along the same lines as "Slither", Carpenter's remake is gory, grisly and features some outstanding scares. I wasn't really prepared for this film's greatness when I first watched it a few years back. This is what horror films should be.
10. House of 1,000 Corpses- While director Rob Zombie has made more and more shit since this feature debut, this is one truly disturbed vision.
9. The Evil Dead 2
8- The Evil Dead- One of the rules of Ed's ballot was that one can't list two films together, hence the separation of these two. Though tongue is firmly pressed in cheek throughout Sam Raimi's two efforts, these are also wildly exciting diversions of the horror genre. The sound work is great in both films and that gives me the willies.
7. Pulse- Amazing that Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film ranks so high on this list, but if you've seen it, you can respect that. Kurosawa has mood in spades. While very few of his films are categorically horror, his films often express a deep rooted sense of dread, and none so brilliantly as “Pulse”. What would happen if spirits from another world use the Internet to transfer their presence into our world and slowly bring about the demise of our society? “Pulse” never easily identifies itself, but images of dark rooms as a contorted shadow looms towards us or the solemn quiet that builds throughout certain scenes are highly unnerving. This is one that crawls under your skin, collects in your head and rattles around for days.
6. Don't Look Now- While there are very few outright scares in Roeg’s 1973 psychological thriller, there is that final scene when Donald Sutherland suddenly finds the thing he’s been chasing for the previous 2 hours… and it’s a downright disturbing moment, and some of cinema’s most devastating final images. Before that though, Roeg amps up the psychological tension to an unbearable level, utilizing sound and mirror reflections to chilling lengths. This is one of the true gems of the 1970’s.
5. Dawn of the Dead- Mass consumerism, both human and inhuman, is the real shocker here. While Romero’s sequel is certainly just as socially pointed as the first, Dawn of the Dead spares no limb as a group of survivors fight to stay alive inside a shopping mall. This is fun from start to finish, with more humor and interesting observations than 10 horror films combined. Some don't find 'the willies' in comatose-speed zombies, but I do.
4. Ju-On- Only 5 years ago and the J-Horror movement was beginning to take shape. Now, Hollywood has drained the life out of the genre, substituting teen cleavage for harsh psychological thrills and abrasive editing in place of subtle, jarring movements in the corner of the frame. And while it’s hard not to partially blame Shimizu for this (seeing as how he re-directed 2 of his Asian films for Hollywood with Sarah Michelle Gellar), this 2004 J-Horror film really pushed these films into the limelight. Tremendously creepy and eerie, Ju-On works best in a dark movie theater with the sound cranked up and no where to hide from the images. While the film’s story- ghosts in a big bad haunted house- lacks some spark, the energy of the film lies in the small scares and the suffocating mood that slowly boils as the film rolls along.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- Besides the obvious reasons, Hooper’s masterpiece feels unlike any other horror movie- raw, unfiltered, dirty… all of the things that give this movie a “lived in” feel. Hooper never quite regained his chops after this debut, but the existing result is a terrifying and perverse portrait of madness that fits perfectly into any midnight movie extravaganza. This is the kind of film that forces you to take a shower after watching it.
2. Demons- Carrying on the horror tradition of his father, Mario, this Italian zombie movie (like Romero’s above) constantly exerts a sly gesture of political and cinematic winks, while remaining wholly true to its gore-induced roots. A group of people are trapped inside a movie theater while flesh eating zombies claw away at them. While fellow Italian filmmakers were creating horror films whose splintered narratives made them feel choppy (see any Lucio Fulci film) Bava’s intention was clear- entertain. And in the process, he infused new life into a deflated genre. Extremely bloody and sometimes shocking.
1. Night of the Living Dead- This was one of the first horror movies I remember watching, and more directly, watching through the slits of my fingers as I held them over my eyes. Even today, Romero’s black and white zombie-fest is light years ahead of the social commentary and the gory bleakness of modern horror films. “Night of the Living Dead” is a perfect example of a filmmaker creating the right movie at the right time with an ample understanding of its context in history.