Saturday, November 24, 2007

Coming Soon: Regional Reviews

In the latest issue of Film Comment, there's an article on Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell. Not only is it a fascinating read on a maverick filmmaker, but I'm ashamed to admit I've never heard of this man before.... or any of his films. But, in reading more and more about him, it seems evident that his films (along with the work of John Cassavetes) eventually wound up inspiring what we call "independent films" today. In fact, Pennell's 1977 film, "The Whole Shootin Match" which played at the 1979 USA Film Festival, has been quoted as the film that inspired Robert Redford to create the Sundance Institute.

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

Triple Dip of Lumet

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

Second Thoughts on "No Country"

Not only does a second viewing of "No Country For Old Men" prepare oneself for a deeper understanding of the metaphorical underpinnings that populate this Coen Brothers masterpiece, but it makes one appreciate the sadness of the Tommy Lee Jones charatcer even more. And a word of caution, there are plenty of SPOILERS below, so read at your own peril.

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

Trailers I Love

As an avid fan of Schnabel's "Basquiet", I've been hearing great things about this film since Cannes.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Movie Moment

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

Discussion: What Movies Freaked You Out as a Kid?

While surfing Aint It Cool News tonight, I came across this amusing interview between Quint and actor Jason Schwartzman where they rhapsodize about films they watched as kids, and talk about pretty much nothing else. At times, Jason reverses the roles and becomes interviewer in a neat conversation about their equal love of movies. Schwartzman mentions a film called "The Peanut Butter Solution" that gave him nightmares when he saw it as a child. In the comments section of the article, someone points out that at the IMDB link of the film, one can find over 50 people so happy to find this film listed on IMDB after years of searching that their relief feels contagious. If you skim through the comments, this appears to be a film that freaked out alot of 5-10 year olds kids in the late 80's, and virtually every one of them could not remembered the film's title nor convince anyone close to them of this film's existence. The common reaction from friends or spouses was "that sounds too weird, you probably just dreamed it."

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

Two From The Weekend

No Country For Old Men

"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

10 Random Thoughts on "American Gangster"

1. 2007 is officially the year of the Brolin. With this film, the upcoming "No Country For Old Men" and "In the Valley of Elah", he's come into his own as a vivid presence.
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

HD-DVD Reviews

Batman Begins

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.

Wyatt Earp

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

What's In the Netflix Queue #11

1. Abnormal Beauty- This is one of those Tartan video releases, a great video company that deals out cult Asian films that would've normally fallen through the cracks. This film concerns a photographer who takes pictures of an accident and is haunted by unknown occurrences afterwards.
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!