Friday, February 29, 2008

Regional Review: Room

Director Kyle Henry's debut fiction film, "Room", inspires comparison to the weird vibes present in a lot of David Lynch's dreamy narratives. And while Henry's film leaves just as much to be desired in way of commercial closure as Lynch's trips down nightmare alleys, the overall effect isn't quite as effective. Almost though... and that's a pretty good compliment.

Julia (Cindi Williams) is not your typical movie star. Middle aged, out of shape and average lower middle class, she makes ends meets by working nights in a bingo hall. She has two girls and a loving husband and a scrapped-together existence in Houston. Inexplicably, images start to imprint themselves in her head when she sleeps, eventually overtaking her emotions, causing random black outs. The visions, shown in saturated video clips which include a drone buzzing sound, reveal an unidentifed room. Unable to function and driven by the images, Julia robs her bingo hall and hops the first flight to New York. Once Henry's film globe-trots out of the muggy Houston atmosphere, the mood becomes strange and elliptical, neutralizing spoken dialogue for long stretches as Julia wanders New York City hoping she can find the room. Williams gives a believable performance, transitioning quietly from a subservient mom to obsessed seeker. And director Henry is clearly more interested in the evolution of this single character rather than servicing a story with logical resolution. Not only does Julia leave her suburban Texas life behind, but she initiates a one-night stand with a man in a bar (wearing a cowboy hat and calling himself Big Tex, naturally) and, in the movie's most vivid moment, seeks the advice of a fortune teller. It's a compelling scene that most closely resembles the cryptic impulses of Lynch.

Running only 70 minutes, University of Texas graduate Kyle Henry seems to be struggling with developing from short films and documentaries to feature length efforts, but "Room" showcases a distinct eye and ear for avant garde filmmaking nonetheless. "Room" was nominated at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards for its John Cassavettes award. Henry's other cinematic passion is editing, and the subliminal cuts to Julia's disturbing images prove a deft touch in image and juxtaposition. The latent feel and expertise is there, now I'm wondering what Henry can do with a fully formed script. Produced by Michael Stipe and Jim McKay, "Room" benefits from their production company, C-Hundred Film Corp which seems to be a mainstay for true independent filmmaking. Not only have they produced a majority of McKay's own films (including "Our Song") but the films of Christopher Munch ("The Hours and the Times" and the hugely underrated "Sleepy Time Gal"). It's encouraging to see a company with disciplined attention on films that could fall through the cracks. "Room" certainly qualifies as one of those films, saved from extinction and breathing life into a burgeoning filmmaker. I look forward to what Henry does next.

Monday, February 25, 2008

This Is Not A Test...

"The Signal" is a convincing, low budget vision of our world in complete moral and social collapse. Earning raves at last year's South By Southwest Film Festival, it's bleak, thrillingly original.. and even darkly funny. Filmed in High-def by three separate directors, "The Signal" plays out in chapters (or "transmissions") following the same set of people caught up in, basically, the end of the world. Imagine the brilliant opening of Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" magnified over 90 minutes, and that begins to give you a hint of the grim eeriness "The Signal" achieves. Even though each director- David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry- participated in the overall story and screenplay, they each take the same story in wildly different directions, ranging from satire to the gravely serious. The sum doesn't quite equal to its parts and that just barely keeps it from becoming a truly great and horrifying apocalypse flick.

We're introduced to Mya (Aneesa Ramsey), post coitus, with her adulterous partner, Ben (Justin Welborne) in Terminus City (points off for film school obviousness here) on New Year's Eve. She slinks out of the apartment when the TV set suddenly turns itself on and gives us a Grateful Dead-like explosion of colors and static. Ben turns it off and goes back to bed, unable to talk Mya into running away with him. Mya returns home to her husband, Lewis (A.J. Bowen) who's entertaining friends. The TV set in the background is producing the same white noise. After a brief squabble, Lewis takes a baseball bat and bludgeons his friend to death. Mya runs into the apartment hallway and the apocalypse is certainly underway as bodies are strung about the hallway. People begin to randomly turn into homicidal maniacs as every bit of technology (TV, phone, car radio) emits the same incessant buzz. Eventually able to flee into her car, "transmission 1" ends with Mya crashing her car and hoping to walk to "terminal 13" at the local airport, which stands as the veritable Eden in this vision of hell. "Transmission 2" abruptly shifts gears as it follows Clark (Scott Poythress) as he watches Mya walk away from her vehicle. He seeks shelter with Anna (Cheri Christian), a housewife whose just killed her husband as they prepare for a new year's eve party. Overshadowing the previous mayhem, this section opts for a more comical take on the situation. And while this scenario, ending with Lewis breaking in to find out where Mya went based on her car being outside, will take most of the flack from hardcore gore lovers, it makes sense in its own weird way. Not only does it give the viewer a much needed break from the grimness of the opening section, but it manages to subvert our expectations and place us inside the warped heads of these people being manipulated by the signal. Some are turned into maniacs, and others are rendered helpless by their loss of reality. Even though Anna killed her husband, she continues to manifest the belief that Clark is her husband. It may seem easy to pick apart this section and while it certainly lacks the intelligent edge of the others, it supplies us with an equally deranged descent into madness. The third section reunites Ben and Mya in terminal 13, but with an axe-toting Lewis not far behind.

I have to admire what directors Bruckner, Bush and Gentry have attempted. "The Signal" is not over-directed, i.e. full of inescapable hand held shots that whiz by without a proper sense of any character or emotion. There's a careful attention to ambiance, placement and mood throughout the whole film. The bodies are displayed in just the right corner of the frame and while some of the 'kill scenes' are obviously making up for its shoe-string budget, they're no less disturbing. And even when the story itself heads into some pretty heady territory, one can see the whole thing fitting together in a radically mind blowing way. If nothing else, "The Signal" deserves a spot on the midnight cult circuit for years to come.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

70's Bonanza- The Anderson Tapes

Well known for it's continual procession of trend-setting paranoid thrillers, the 1970's was a veritable golden age of American "thrillers" and "retro noirs". One of the largely unsung forerunners of this genre has to be Sidney Lumet's "The Anderson Tapes". Released early in 1971 and yet to be manufactured on DVD in any form, it originated smack in the middle of a row of films that director Lumet was producing with actor Sean Connery. The premise is this- a master thief is released from prison and he immediately begins planning the robbery of a building that covers an entire block. He gathers a small crew (including Lumet regular Martin Balsam and featuring the first role for a blond, bright eyed Christopher Walken) and the adventure begins.

Taken on plot synopsis alone, "The Anderson Tapes" reads like a redundant narrative pieced together from numerous other heist films. But the glory of this gem lies in the impending paranoia that soaks the entire affair, pre-dating the electronic malaise that surfaces in Coppola's "The Conversation" and Alan J. Pakula's "Three Days of the Condor" and pretty much any other 70's thriller that comes to mind. Not only is the CIA canvasing some of the people that Connery brings into the heist (including a mob boss played to smarmy perfection by Alan King) but there's a jealous lover bugging the apartment of the woman (Dyan Cannon) that Connery shacks up with. The endless Pandora's box of electronics surveillance is represented with unnerving sound design by Lumet regular Jack Fitzstephens and genuinely claustrophobic music by Quincy Jones. The various bugs and tape recorders become a central character as they stay hidden in the background, threatening to rise up and obliterate Connery's single-minded determinism. One viewing of "The Anderson Tapes" and one understands where Coppola and the others gleaned their own visions of modern technology interfering (and controlling) human deceptions.

The final half of "The Anderson Tapes" deals specifically with the robbery itself, as Connery and his group quietly go from apartment to apartment and rob the tenants. Here, Lumet is in full control of sound, motion and camera placement, slowly turning the screws as the goings-on inside the apartment building contrast with the logistics outside the building (not wanting to give too much away). In this final 40 minutes, Lumet cuts between the black and white monitors, the reactions of the tenants before and after the robbery and the structured precision of the robbery with a fluid sense of increasing tension. When a heist film is done right- thinking specifically of Jules Dassin and "Rififfi" or certain scenes in Michael Mann's "Heat"- it all coalesces in the editing. In "The Anderson Tapes", not only is the technical part handled with perfection, but one actually roots for the bad guys because you can appreciate the care that's gone into pulling off the perfect job. If anything, "The Anderson Tapes" is Lumet's perfect job as well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oscar 2008

When this type of thing is done well, it's fun to watch. But this pastiche of the Oscar nominated films makes my heart and mind soar.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #14

With so much dreck in theaters right now, it's been a rather DVD heavy month. Next weekend promises the first movie I actually want to see in a theater this year- Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind. Here are the next ten titles in my Netflix queue:

1. Maculin Feminine- I've been rewatching alot of Godard lately. I've only seen this film once. Certainly due for a second round.
2. Equus- For any concerned, I'm still plowing my way through Sidney Lumet films.... almost to the point of compulsion. I've been able to track down early VHS copies of movies like "The Anderson Tapes" and "The Group", plus there's still some available on DVD that I've yet to watch. This is one of them.
3. Grandma's Boy- I really have no excuse for this one. Some friends tell me it's hilarious, plus it feautures some of the Apatow crew such as Linda Cardellini (who I'm in love with) from "Freaks and Geeks" fame and Jonah Hill. By the way, check out the new red band trailer for the next Apatow-crew project, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
4. The Real Dirt On Farmer John- Documentary about a hippie commune that folded under the agricultural boom of the 80's. It got a lot of good print a while back and just out on DVD in the last few weeks.
5. The Quiet Duel- I've seen all available Kurosawa films on VHS and DVD, and this five disc "Postwar Kurosawa" boxset from Eclipse fills the gap with some of his late 40's and early 50's films. "The Quiet Duel" deals with a doctor (played by regular Toshiro Mifune) who contracts syphilis and the ramifications in family and society.
6. Comedy of Power- Recent Claude Chabrol release.
7. The Boston Strangler- Is New York really the center of the film universe? I ask this because anytime a film society (Lincoln Center, Film Forum) hosts a retrospective or partial retrospective screening of a director, that artist immediately undergoes critical evaluation around the U.S. This month, they're showing three Richard Fleischer films. The net is beginning to buzz about him (hack or not?), he's enjoyed a prominent and well-written essay in the latest issue of Film Comment and his name is being vollied back and forth on blogs. All of this to say... I've never really investigated him as a director. Checking his filmography, it's filled with films from my youth ("Red Sonja", "Conan The Destroyer", "Mr. Majestyk") but not any real obvious career definers. I'll check out "The Boston Strangler", which I hear is a pretty involving police procedural, and if I like, I might dig deeper.
8. No Regrets For Our Youth- Another postwar Kurosawa release.
9. In the Shadow of the Moon- NASA documentary that ended up on quite a few top ten lists this past year.
10. Quiet City- DIY filmmaker Aaron Katz's highly regarded independent film. The trailer was well rendered. I'm not a huge fan of the 'mumblecore' movement, but this one seems different somehow.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tops In Pops '07

I bought probably half of what I usually buy in a given year. I blame it on my Ipod. After purchasing one in early spring, I spent the first half of the year importing my mammoth collection into the little bugger and the other half of the year continually giddy over hitting the 'shuffle' button and being surprised by what comes out. Still, I did manage to discover some new bands, cherish some old ones and find a few diamonds in the rough. Here, in order of preference, are my favorite albums of 2007:

1. Radiohead "In Rainbows"- Anyone who knows my predilections in music will understand that pretty much any Radiohead release will shoot directly to the top (yes, even their experimental and almost non-musical efforts like "Kid A" and "Amnesiac"). But this year, Radiohead's "In Rainbows" earns its spot by laying out a solid return to form with pretty straight forward rock that echoes back to their days of "Pablo Honey". The guitar is simple, the drums push the melodies, and Thom Yorke hasn't attempted to hide his voice behind electronic manipulations. For sheer rock and roll, "In Rainbows" is brilliant and it re-affirms my belief that Radiohead are not happy with simply pushing the envelope, but staying in front of the pack and choosing to look back momentarily.

2. The National "Boxer"- Lead singer Matt Berninger's crooning, baritone voice would feel right at home in the smoke-filled lounges of 1970's Vegas, and with "Boxer", The National have become pretty close to filling the spot as my new favorite band. If one can take the self-defeating lyrics- which reel off like negative counterparts to the world weary musings of Greg Dulli from The Afghan Whigs-then The National are just the band for you. And that speaks volumes about this band when one actually cares to listen to the lyrics. The music is startling, but the words cut like a knife. Their music has been compared to the likes of Interpol, but there's something more at work here. While their previous release, "Alligator", scores just a little higher for me personally, "Boxer" is a knockout regardless.

3. The Arcade Fire "Neon Bible"- Canadian band The Arcade Fire create a wild merging of music and sounds. Integrating old fashioned rock, a brass section, church style organs and a Polyphonic Spree chrous of voices, their music reaches magical heights at times. Very similiar to the sound of fellow Canadian band, The Broken Social Scene, they often front up to 10 band members. And when you listen to their music, you get a sense of every single personality, as if their individual musical talent is fighting to be heard and erupts in one joyous blend. Their stuff is simply indescribable. "The Neon Bible" is another huge step forward that blasts pretty much everything else out of the water when listened to in one sitting.

4. Once Soundtrack- A sure-fire artistic coup to take musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova and build a film around their ingratiating abilties as naturalistic performers and even better musicians. They portray a couple on-screen who meet and make some pretty impressive music together (literally, not figuratively). Hansard, part of the Irish band The Frames, places his music not only as the soundtrack for the film, but the emotional foundation for the characters and dramatic thrust of the entire narrative. This has been called the best musical of the modern age, and I wouldn't disagree.

5. Interpol "Our Love To Admire"- Continuing to mine the Joy Division sound of the 80's, Interpol's latest album is more of the same but their lyrics have grown increasingly dark and their pulsating sound has begun to dig a little deeper. This is a great entrance point for any new admirers and an evolving mid-point for long time fans.

6. Dinosaur Jr. "Beyond"- After I placed Dinosaur's new cd, "Beyond" into the player, it immediately transported me back to 1993 when I first discovered this racous, guitar-heavy grunge rock band. Even the album cover- a black and white photo of a party thrashed living room and couch with half of a human body disappearing beneath the cushions- gleefully recalls the early days of grunge. Frontman and guitarist J Mascis has bounced through several projects, but the current release sounds like they never missed a beat. It's certainly nothing new, but its exactly this timelessness that I adore.

7. Asobi Seksu "Citrus"- I featured this band in an earlier blog posting, and while their sound is a little more pop-tinged than I usually like, there's something very inviting about female singer Yuki Chikudate's airy, ethereal voice wafting against the heavy sound of James Hanna's guitar and drummer Ben Shapiro. This is definitely mood music, and Asobi Sekse (Japanese for 'playful sex') can put you in a variety of moods.

8. Foo Fighters "Echoes, Silence Patience and Grace"- While The Foo Fighters are certainly capable of producing ready made FM hits ("The Pretender"), their newest outing also slows things down a bit, mixing in some slide guitar on slow, ambling songs as well as other experimental efforts. It still remains clear that for sheer musical ability, Dave Groehl was pretty much the driving force behind Nirvana's sound while Kobain was the deliverer of its tortured soul and voice. "Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace" is exactly that- an album that impresses and intrigues with each new song as it turns its back on commercialism after the first hit.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

#6 Radiohead

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later this week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned.

So nice to see and hear Radiohead return to good old fashioned rock. And when they're on.. there's no one that does it better. Their online album marketing was revolutionary and yes, I still paid $9.99 for the download.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

#5 Once Soundtrack

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later this week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned.

If you haven't seen this movie (or heard Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) run to your local video store now.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Admissions of Guilt

I can admit it. I made the wrong choice. HD-DVD is probably not the hi-def choice of the future, and this e-mail I received from Netflix today states the slow turning of the tide to Blu-Ray:

<< Dear Joe, You're receiving this email because you have asked to receive high-definition movies in the HD DVD format. As you may have heard, most of the major movie studios have recently decided to release their high-definition movies exclusively in the Blu-ray format. In order to provide the best selection of high-definition titles for our members, we have decided to go exclusively with Blu-ray as well.

While we will continue to make our current selection of HD DVD titles available to you for the next several months, we will not be adding additional HD DVD titles or reordering replacements.

Toward the end of February, HD DVDs in your Saved Queue will automatically be changed to standard definition DVDs. Then toward the end of this year, all HD DVDs in your Queue will be changed to standard definition DVDs. Don't worry, we will contact you before this happens.

Thank you
Netflix Management>>

Sucks. Oh well. The shitty thing is, now I'm itching to buy a Blu-Ray player. I can't stand the idea of my home theater system and projection screen not producing Hi-Def results. I just need to take a deep breath, avoid spending more money and live with it for the next few months. RIP HD-DVD.

#4 Dinosaur Jr.

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later this week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned.

Ahh, Dinosaur Jr. We've all gotten older but the song remains the same. From a live event in Portugal late last year.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

#3 The Arcade Fire

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later this week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned.

I became a fan of The Arcade Fire just this year, re-discovering their debut album, "Funeral" and was immediately blown away by their all encompassing sound. This is a fun clip that has them playing a song from their latest album in an elevator.

#3a Bonus Clip- The Arcade Fire w/ David Bowie

Saturday, February 09, 2008

#2 Foo Fighters

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later next week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned. One of the major surprises this year- a terrific Foo Fighters album that expands their range dramatically. And the above clip is from a 1-23-08 concert here in Dalas that was phenominal. Two hours and 30 hours of pretty much everything they'e recorded, including a nice acoustic set that they performed at the opposite end of the theater for us not so close to the stage.

Friday, February 08, 2008

#1 The National

In lieu of my favorite music of 2007 post later next week, I'll let pictures and sound do most of the talking for the next seven days as I post various clips from the bands mentioned. Enjoy. In no order, New York band The National perfoming the song "Mr. November", the jaw-dropping finale song to their 2005 release, "Alligator" which stands, right now, in my top ten albums of all time. 2007 saw them release "Boxer", a terrific follow-up and yes, obviously one of my fav albums of '07.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Random Thoughts On the Super Bowl

1. Not that I had a vested interest in either team winning, but I kinda hoped the Pats would win just so every ESPN announcer would stop trying to clone the Chris Berman G-MEN expression. It's annoying enough when just Berman does it.
2. Commercials- not so funny. Since when did people doing stupid dances, celebs singing badly and doing stupid dances, and CGI created lizard things doing stupid dances become funny?
3. I kinda wanna see "Iron Man" now.
4. I don't watch many Pats games so I don't know the amount of coverage she usually receives, but where were all the Eva Longoria-type screen shots of Giselle whats her name? They could've got alot more mileage out of her.
5. I enjoyed the game. Sorta old fashioned, very few referee interferences and they allowed the guys to play football for a change. Nothing was decided due to controversial calls or blown flags. Good job guys.
6. That Manning non-sack-catch play will live on and on and on.
7. Bellichick really hates losing. A classless showing after a legit beating.
8. Another thing about Bellichick. Why not go for the long field goal at 46 yards to at least give your team a chance? I mean 4th and 13 conversion? Not the way Brady was dodging blue jerseys in the pocket all night. Maybe all those 4th down 'go for its' during the regular season when they were already up by 31 finally came back to haunt them. You can't convert 'em all. Hire a new kicker then.
9. I guessed it. There were at least 2 mentions of God during the post game interview. And from the same player!
10. Look on the brightside, Boston. You still got 1 world champ. Don't be greedy.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Least Pretentious Way To Watch A Movie

I don't know how prevalant these types of places are around the country, but if there's one near you, I urge you to check it out in the near future. It's known as a movie grill. By doing some quick research, it appears the chain I visited here in Dallas is locally owned and operated, opening a little over 10 years ago. I know places such as Austin's Alamo Drafthouse have been catering to this style of movie-watching for years now and I'm sure each city has their own variations, but this is a fun environment. I went with a group of friends on Friday night and was blown away by the level of entertainment. First off, for you alcoholics out there, I've yet to be at a movie/bar setting (such as the various Angelika settings for example) whose bar doesn't outclass a majority of the city's other hot drinking spots. Then, when allowed into the theater, we found ourselves a perfectly clear view of the screen, relaxing in plush chairs with a table directly in front of us. There was room to spread out your legs and truly enjoy the experience. Throughout the movie, the waitstaff remains fairly invisible so they don't detract from the film. And, add to that, this is an environment that elicits howling, clapping and reactions to the on-screen action. Overall, just a highly pleasurable experience that everyone should participate in with friends.

And as for the movie.. I've kept you in suspense long enough. Rambo. Based on the reaction of 1 of my friends as we exited the theater, "that was the greatest film known to mankind." Need I say more? This is the type of film that defies critical expectations. Simply order another pitcher and roll with the fun.