Wednesday, May 23, 2007

An Appreciation: James Gray

Three films. Three films is all director James Gray has under his belt... currently. So why does a director with only 3 films (and honestly, only 2 can be seen by the mainstream public right now as the third has its debut in Cannes this week) register a full length write up? I ask you.. have you seen the two films of James Gray, namely "Little Odessa" (1994) and "The Yards" (2000)? If you have, then one understands the complex subtlety and traditional mannerisms of both films. They are both extraordinary works, both in the way they reveal subtle (yet shocking) brutality and in the way they peel apart the intimacy of family. At times when watching "The Yards", one is reminded of the epic family struggles presented in Coppola's "The Godafther" series. Or maybe its just the beautifuly underlit prowess of cinematographer Harry Savides that gives that film a classical look. Either way, "The Yards" was the first Gray film I saw.. and it simply blew me away. I've since gone back and watched his debut film, "Little Odessa" in which a subdued Tim Roth portrays a contract killer who returns home to Brighton Beach to carry out an assignment, all the while attemtping to reconnect with his estranged family. The connections between both films, heavily laden with themes of guilt and motherly redemption versus institutionalized crime, are too great to ignore. Either Gray is working out some demons in his closet or he's comfortable in this milieu. Either way, his eye for creating art is indelible.

At the age of 24, Gray made his first film, "Little Odessa". Starring Tim Roth as Joshua, it deliberately tracks Joshua as he returns home to Brighton Beach to carry out a contract hit. Not only is he hesitant to return home (Gray hesitantly infers that the local Russian mafia is after him for a murder he committed years ago) but his family wants nothing to do with him. They know what he does for a living and his father (played with grace and humanity by Maximilian Schell) throws him out of the house the first night he tries to visit his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave). The only re-connection he can form is with his little brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and old girlfriend Alla (Moira Kelly). As Joshua lulls away the time before his contract killing, the Russian mob finds out he's in town, eventually exacting disastrous consequences for all involved. This brief synopsis (which I'm terrible at writing and often hate doing when writing about film) fails to recognize the enormous power that writer-director Gray infuses in the film. It sounds cliche and a certainly dated, but "Little Odessa" hits all the right notes. The relationship that grows between Joshua and Reuben and Joshua and Alla is never forced, but undeniably believable. Moira Kelly does a nice job of evolving from suspicious to loving through only a few encounters. And Furlong, who clearly looks up and respects his brother from their first meeting on a snowy street, never reaches for emotional arches. Every performance is natural. And, as in his next film "The Yards", Gray layers the whole affair in sad loneliness as people connect and disconnect due to lifestyle choices. Perhaps the most powerful moment in "Little Odessa" comes when Joshua finally gets to sit on the edge of the bed with his dying mother and she casually reaches out for his hand, accepting the lifestyle he's chosen. Like Mark Wahlburg later in "The Yards", a big tough guy is relegated to a small boy right before our eyes.

It was six years later before Gray was given the chance to direct again. The rumors are still rampant that Gray was forced to compromise his vision for Miramax films, but "The Yards" doesn't feel like a truncated work. Expanding his actor base and his sensibilties for a large scale crime film that deals with the exploits of New York railyard corruption and political bribery, "The Yards" is, at heart, just as small as "Little Odessa" in terms of its mutual themes. In lieu of Tim Roth is Mark Wahlburg as Leo, an ex-con whose returned home from prison to start over with his fragile mother (Ellen Burstyn) but gets involved in police brutality and murder with his crime-related cousin Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) and uncle Frank (James Caan). Complicating matters is his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron), engaged to Willie but haunted by accusations of a sexual relationship with cousin Leo years earlier. The tone of "The Yards" is akin to the strained battle between good and evil at the heart of "Little Odessa". And even though the wrangling of such big named stars happened, "The Yards" doesn't suffer from big-actoritis. Each person morphs into their roles easily. None better than Mark Wahlburg and Phoenix. I'd love to talk about his third film "We Own the Night" (starring Wahlburg and Phoenix again), releasing later this year, but I'll have to let the Cannes critics and others do the exposition on this one.

The most exciting thing about Gray is the framing of his films. "The Yards" certainly benefits from the magical lighting abilities of Harry Savides, but Gray knows how to place a camera for maximum effect. His silences are often more thrilling than the soundtrack. Take for example the dead silence as a killer stalks through the darkened apartment of Wahlburg, or the peripheral sounds of a hospital as Wahlburg makes a vital decision in "The Yards". There's also the quiet framing of the final shoot-out in "Little Odessa" as three people move like chess pieces inside and outside a wood frame house. And when Gray decides to get brutal, you feel the brutality. Who could forget the sounds of punches hitting flesh as Phoenix and Wahlburg duke it out in "The Yards" or the piercing gunshots in "Little Odessa". Not only do Gray films punctuate the inner turmoil, but their pretty adept at nailing the external conflict as well.

Even though both films were well received by critics on first release, they made a little splash at the box office. I can understand the lukewarm attendance for "Little Odessa" in 1994. Think of the bad timing of that film. 1994 saw the advent of the ultra-cool indie crime film, kickstarted by Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" then "Pulp Fiction". Not only was every other film being released tracking the dramatic progress of hit men and low-lifes, but they were so many of them For every "Red Rock West" there was a "Things to Do in Denver When Your Dead". For every "Boondock Saints" there was a "Truth or Consequences N.M.". It seems easy for a film like "Little Odessa" to get lost in the neo-new wave shuffle (although it did garner a Silver Lion award at the Venice film Fest that year, the only group to fully recognize the greatness of Gray's debut). But "The Yards" is a whole other matter. It had big names, a fall showcase release and plenty of word-of-mouth. I guess if both films were cult hits, I wouldn't feel the need for writing about them. There's something glamorous about proclaiming the greatness of something that only a few embrace. The two films of James Gray are glamorous.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Posters I Love

It's been a crazy week of traveling and work (sadly, not traveling that includes the south of France where the Cannes Film Festival kicked off) and my posts have been inconsistent at best. So, while scowering the coverage of Cannes so far, I stumbled across this poster. Not only is it one kick ass poster that would do well to boost the finances of any film (what did Godard say- "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun") but it's a new film from Olivier Assayas featuring the lusty Asia Argento who I've had a crush on for years now. What are the chances this actually becomes the release poster here in the U.S.? My money is on zilch. We're afraid of sexuality in every aspect. Still, I know I'm putting down my $8.75 when "Boarding Gate" hits North American shores. And a sidenote.... I've got to see The Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men"

Saturday, May 12, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #5

I've been busy and missed putting one of these up last week.

1. Time To Leave- Francis Ozon's latest, this guy has to be one of the most prolific directors in France. I think there's only 1 or 2 of his I haven't seen. While not all of them are great, they always surprise me.
2. Dune: Extended Edition- Ok, ok.... I've only seen bits and pieces of this through the years because, growing up, I never really liked science fiction. It didn't appeal to me as a kid upon first release and the rumors of how screwed up it is as an adult have kept me away from it. Still, it's Lynch, so I'm willing to give it a shot. And (maybe someone can help justify it?) it's the extended edition and more in line with Lynch's original vision right!???
3. The Wire Season 3 disc 1- And so season 3 begins. I can't wait.
4. Salvatore Giuliano- I've been catching up with Francesco Rosi's films. In the downtime between my last post of queue lists, I've seen his "Hands Over the City" which is a pretty damn good film in its own right. I've heard this is not your usual look at the mafia- its much more oblique and complicated in its views of Italian life and it eschews any real action.
5. Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me- The last Lynch film I've never seen. I own the first season of "Twin Peaks" on DVD and with the release of season 2 a couple weeks ago, this should be a complimentary feature.
6. The Other- If anyone has ventured over to Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule they'll see a write up from Dennis about a Los Angeles film festival entitled "The Good, The Bad and the Strange" that'll make any film lover drool because they don't live in L.A. This film is a part of that festival and Dennis has been a strong supporter of this 1972 psychological horror film. I look forward to sinking my teeth into it as well. I'd never heard of it before Dennis kindly brought it to my attention last October during my "Favorite Horror Films" blog-a-thon. Let's just hope other readers of Dennis' blog don't hog the film for the rest of us. I have very few "long waits" in my queue, but this could turn out to be one of them.
7. Pusher- I've been looking for this film for years since it got a few nice words in film publications back in the last 90's. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has since completed 2 more "Pusher" films to complete his trilogy and they are not far down the queue list. I understand this is a pretty bleak, violent look at Denmark drug dealers. We all love bleak films about Denmark low-life!
8. Who's Camus Anyway?- Fellow blogger Peter Nellhaus wrote about this film here recently. This was a "Film Comment" fav not to long ago.
9. Christ Stopped at Eboli- Another Francesco Rosi.
10. The Wire Season 3 disc 2.

And finally, if anyone is interested in becoming a "Friend" on Netflix and sharing queues, let me know. It'd be interesting to see what others are renting and open my horizons even more. And I promise I won't tell if your queue is filled with Emmanuel films and "Wild Orchid".

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thoughts on "The Wire"

In watching and surveying the first 2 seasons of David Simon's HBO series "The Wire", I can't relay how in awe I am of the show's continued intelligence, characterizations and attention to procedural details. Though drastically different (with season 2 branching off into more intimate territories of crime and fraud on the Baltimore dock yards), both seasons make a statement that's been echoed here and in media print worldwide- that TV offers, hands down, the best environment to create and evolve a multi-layer narrative that stretches across so many boundaries of human interaction and growth. Characters appear and disapper, just like friends and acquantences in real life. Plot points are carried over several years. Weakness, motivation and all the other usual tropes are much clearer because we live with the characters for so long, eventually identifying pieces of ourselves in them. Modern TV is the visual answer to the novel. I'll never give up reading, but with epic television shows, it makes things a little easier if I don't read every day.

So, back to "The Wire". What strikes me most about seasons 1 and 2 (and I won't go into detailed plot synopsis because, quite simply, I could never do the series justice and half the fun is finding out for yourself) is how sprawling investigations are flamed higher and higher after insignificant incidents. Take these for example: 1) in season 1, a state's witness is murdered after he testifies on the stand against one of the mid-level players in an expansive drug operation run by heavy Avon Barksdale. Now, ordinarily, in the projects of Baltimore where "The Wire" takes place, a murder is something to scoff at. The detective appropriation board is already overflowing with cases that are unsolved. But it's the indefatiguable persistance of Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) that opens the case wider. He goes to his judge friend, makes a few comments, and suddenly the entire Baltimore police force is scurrying to cover their own ass and solve this single murder. Loose lips certainly sink ships. An investigation is begun, and for the next 12 episodes, McNulty and a varied task force of equally dedicated officers ferociously hunt down every lead, exhaust every possibility and unturn every stone until the crime syndicate is toppled over. And while "The Wire" spares no expense in documenting the detailed steps of the investigation, it also brilliantly illuminates the versimilitude that exists in the heirarichal ladder of the Baltimore police force and their political counterparts. The dynamics of big city institutions are portrayed with a sense of truth. I look forward to seasons 3 and 4, in which I understand the Baltimore school system is brought under a jaundiced eye. 2) the second seemingly innocent kindle to a larger fire happens after a local dock worker, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) outbids a local police major (already at each other's throats due to deep-seated nationality differences) and gets the better spot to showcase a stained glass window in their church. The Major puts together a detail to investigate where Sobotka earns that much money. The detail soon becomes entertwined with low-level drug dealers, international smuggling and murder.

Season 1 entranced me from the beginning. Not only does it represent what it surely feels like to pace through a slow-moving investigation, but it takes time to flesh out minute details that often gets lost in the wham-bam shuffle of other crime thrillers. For instance, when an officer decides to accept an undecover job and go inside the low-rise apartments to make a buy, the group's confidential informant makes a few casual remarks- "Is that your wedding ring? Take it off. A real drug fiend would've pawned that months ago. Let me see the bottom of your tennis shoes? Their not dirty enough. If you're a real drug fiend and you live in the low-rise, then the bottom of your shoes are full of broken glass from the drug capsules." That's what great stories do- they take ordinary situations and layer them in knowledge. Season 1 is full of knowledge. And while season 1 spends a majority of its time on the investigation, it also sheds emotional light on the family turmoil that face alot of the crew. McNulty is suffering through a disintegrating marriage and Lt. Daniels (played by the wonderfully stoic Lance Reddick) has to defend his every move when coming late at night for dinner. Likewise, Detective Kima Griggs (Sonja Sohn) has the double whammy of being involved in a same sex relationship, so she's dealing with the pressures of a homophobic environment as well as the stress her job entails. After all, she's a fiend for action, so when there's a door to be broken through, she's usually the first one inside. Season 1 not only speaks the truths of the street, but it reaches some pretty nice emotional highs as well.

In season 2, "The Wire" takes a deep breath and shifts gears from the poverty, drug-stricken Baltimore low-rise apartment housing to the blue collar shores of the dock yards in which international smuggling, low-level drug dealing and labor union corruption are just a few of the easy targets. And even though the thrust of the series lies in a police investigation that surfaces once a shipping canister of dead bodies is found on the dock of Frank Sobotka, the real heart of season 2 rests on the tragic consequences that a blue collar family suffers because of the investigation. Not only does "The Wire" begin to work outward (docks, labor corruption, Eastern European crime lords) but it strikes the most potent notes when it works inward towards the Sobotka clan. And all over a stained glass chruch window. Season 2 reminds me of the way Coppola's "Godafther 2" turned suddenly into an epic family chamber piece. The greatest casualties in Season 2 are the off spring. Confused, despondent and looking for more money than the 20 hours a week that the dock provides, Sobotka's son, Ziggy (James Ransone) and his cousin Nick (Pablo Schreiber) become involved in the low level drug trade and, eventually, topple their father's shaddy dock dealings. And its all the more tragic because Frank Sobotka, at heart, isn't a terribly bad person. He gets involved with bad people (Greek crime lords played menacingly well by Paul Ben Victor and Bill Raymond) and suffers the consequences of organzied crime. And that's the beauty of "The Wire"- every side of the story is beautifully realized. Equal time is given to the strong bond that hovers over the dock workers. More time is probably spent inside the local beer tavern where the dock workers hang out every night than any police office. One gets the sense that in Season 2, creator and writer David Simon is expanding outward and hitting notes of something intimate, something that is more than painting good and bad. And when the last line is spoken in Season 2, one gets the sense that old stomping grounds (i.e. the low level high rise) will again become an active plot point. Like in real life, evil is never destroyed. It only manifests itself in another form. I look forward to where Season 3 takes me.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Black Book

Not only does the story of a seductive female spy give Dutch director Paul Verhoeven the opportunity to again explore screen sexuality in vivid and unflinching ways, but by placing his heroine in the midst of the German SS headquarters during World War II, "Black Book" also gets to dole out violence, torture and double-crosses regularly. Basically, everything that's made him famous with American audiences (i.e. "Showgirls", fascism in "Starship Troopers") gets a once-over in subtitles. Luckily, "Black Book" is also tense, intricately plotted and features one of the most gorgeous female screen presences I can remember in many years. And for those of you lusting over a pubic hair shot ala "Basic Instinct", you get that as well. In her role as Rachel/Ellis, actress Carice Van Houten certainly goes through hell. From seeing her hiding place go up in flames as she idylly lays on a pier in the film's opening moments to almost being drowned by a bucket of human feces dropped on her head in a torturous act of humiliation by her fellow countryman after the war, van Houten manages to keep her dignity throughout. Verhoeven often uses women as malicious and dangerous, but for the first time, he envisions a female character with courage and resilience. And van Houten embodies the role as Rachel/Ellis with patience. She is classical and modern at the same time. Her face recalls the stars of silent film while she uses her body and sexuality with a modern sense of abandonment. Even during some clunky moments of direction from Verhoeven, van Houten and the strong resolve of the films narrative make "Black Book" a rewarding film experience.


Settling into my seat at Nimrod Antal's "Vacancy", I began to get that sinking feeling as trailer after trailer rolled, featuring the likes of Eli Roth's "Hostel 2" and some other shameless pic that exploits torture as a means of cinematic catharsis. Ever since the "Saw" series and Roth's 2 "Hostel" pics (and even to some extent John Stockton's "Touristas"), the genre of torture pics has grown exponentially, not only out-selling each other which commends the filmmakers for making horror films that relies on blood and gore rather than artistic creativity in sound and mood, but out-grossing each other as well. What could be more sickening than a girl falling into a pit of used hyperdermic needles?! I'm sure Eli Roth will come up with something in his latest. And not that I'm totally against the expoitation genre (I grew up with so many great 80's slasher flicks and discovered a host of terrificly twisted grindhouse films over 6 years ago), it's just that the current crew of filmmakers have substituted laziness for substance. They're not even fun in a cheesy manner, just nasty. Luckily, Antal's "Vacancy" doesn't follow the current schematic and the trailers were all just a prime example of Hollywood marketing at its finest. The idea of the 'snuff film' has been an exploitation jewel since the early 70's, lending itself to the main plot of films such as "Last House On Dead End Street" (which was widely considered a snuff film itself for many years due to the unknown wherabouts of many of the film's no-name actors and director) and less so intriguing in Joel Schumacher's "8MM", in which Nick Cage hams it up way before he was hamming it up in recent films. Antal's "Vacancy" plays with the idea of a snuff film as a peripheral effect, clearly sympathizing with his two lead characters more than others lost in this genre. There's some bloodshed, but it's not overdone. And though his characters do make some bone-headed mistakes which show the subtle failings of Mark L. Smith's screenplay, what redeems the film is the tough resilience exhibited by Beckinsale's performance. Moreover, the film features an extremely unsettling soundtrack full of loud shrieks and ambient noises that heightens the already failing psychological tension of Amy and David. And, as in Antal's previous film, the wonderfully atmospheric Hungarian film about a murderer on the loose in the underground Budapest train station called "Kontroll", "Vacancy" gives us a tightly controlled, claustrophobic look at a surreal environment totally controlled by a madman. Antal is clearly at home in this insomniatic world. And he has some great potential ahead of him.

Smokin Aces (DVD)

Director Joe Carnahan's film certainly impressed me more than expected. I loved his pevious film, "Narc", which earned a spot of my favorites list from that respective year, and it's clear he loves his violence and mayhem. While some of the dialogue in "Smokin Aces" reeks of that post-Tarantino style of talking, Carnahan knows how to frame and squeeze every ounce of tension from a shoot-out. Some of his actors (especially Taraji Henson, Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) even manage to scrape together some emotional connections that overcome the falsities of the script (i.e. an exaggerated group of neo Nazi hitmen that serve more as a fatalistic in-joke than anything else). This was an enjoyable romp that features a 'twist' ending that actually kinda makes sense. Carnahan's use of music in this film is also quite good.

Forty Shades of Blue (DVD)

I wasnt a big fan of Ira Sachs previous uber-indie film called "The Delta", but "Forty Shades of Blue" is a miraculous little movie. Full of understated moments, a brilliantly underplayed lead performance from actress Dina Korzun and a moving score, this is a strong movie that turns a well-tread narrative (son comes into an older womans life and shakes up her sexual and emotional existence) into an interesting examination of one womans life. And the final few minutes are quite devastating in their own small way. It's an 'arthouse ending', but altogether satisfying.