Monday, September 29, 2008

Race Wars

Over the past few days, I've seen two films that deal explicitly with the divisions between black and white in varying place, time and culture. Neil LaBute's "Lakeview Terrace" and Spike Lee's "The Miracle At St. Anna" examine the prejudices inherent between both races with varying results. Lee begins his jumping off point by wrapping his story around a group of four Buffalo soldiers in World War 2 who end up separated from their unit and involved in a cosmic fight for their lives in a small Italian village. "Lakeview Terrace" places its action in current Los Angeles, but its vision of the social divide is just as violent- and it's no coincidence that the film poises a wild fire just out of view of its character's front porches, inching ever so close as the film winds to its conclusion. The deck seems to have been perfectly stacked for Lee's film to come out triumphant. I've long been a fan of Lee, and his usual visual prowess is on full display here- the spinning camera as characters talk, the direct stare into the camera, his use of long takes during certain dialogue scenes that adds a spark of energy as the camera calmly creeps in- but of the two, "The Miracle of Saint Anna" is the lesser work. And after the massive debacle that was "The Wicker Man", that's saying a lot for LaBute.

"Lakeview Terrace" is not what's advertised. Okay, well it is and it isn't. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner ( a very upright, Biblical name indeed), his life is upset when a young bi-racial couple move in next door. As the new husband and wife next door, Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are incredible. They have an easy interaction that translates well, such as the little reaction they both exhale when they realize they're finally "homeowners". It's a playful, genuinely felt moment. Whether it's their happiness or Turner's general apathy for the outside world he sees as an L.A. police officer, the tensions between both of them mounts. "Lakeview Terrace" does evolve into a pretty satisfying thriller, but it's also a nice return to form for director LaBute who made his name with lacerating indie dramas such as "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors". 90% of "Lakeview Terrace" is talk, and it's just as verbally violent as those previous efforts. With a script from David Loughrey and Howard Korder, LaBute has found an intriguing theme that he can dig at slowly through terse conversations and verbal sniper attacks. Jackson gets to eventually do his Jackson shtick (and I will strike down upon thee... ok not that bad) but for most of its running time, "Lakeview Terrace" handles the confrontation between its two opposing forces with intelligence. I was pretty amazed at how subtle most of the film is.

Subtle is not the description for Spike Lee's "The Miracle At St. Anna". And subtlety isn't usually the trade that Lee deals in, yet a good majority of his latest work is clumsy, awkward and forced. Even the ending, which should have ended on a certain moving shot, goes on a little too long and dumbs down its message through over explanation. Typically, I can overlook the forcefulness of Lee's message because, technically, his films are so invigorating and his actors so perfect- but this time the stars are not aligned. Starring Derek Luke, Micahel Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Miller, Lee sets his film among the all black regiment in World War 2 known as the Buffalo soldiers. Lost behind enemy lines and forced to hole up in a remote Italian village with a young boy who sees dead people and a village prone to excessive fighting and huge "mamma mias", Lee's film is also heavy on dialogue yet it says much less than LaBute's film. A good number of war cliches are touched upon and the film feels like a desperate attempt to stage something grand when at times), amateurish acting and flashback scenes of racial intolerance threaten to mire the whole thing down in mediocrity. The good things- another lush, moving score from Terence Blanchard that serves as an underlying crest beneath virtually the entire film. Ever since "He Got Game", Blanchard's scores fuels each film like a mini-opera, and that's the case with "The Miracle At St Anna". There's also Lee's minor diversion of flash as he captures the soldiers looking at Nazi propaganda posters on the town walls, giving us a succession of close-up images as a sort of act break. In one of the film's opening scenes, the Buffalo soldiers cross a river where a set of loudspeakers have been set up to broadcast the sultry German voice of a woman spitting virile comments about "the white men allowing the Negros to die". This goes on for a few minutes, cross-cutting between the beautiful blond in a German radio studio, smoking a cigarette as she sexily spits out her rant, and the soldiers listening to her as they march. It's a part of history I've never heard of before, and Lee integrates it into the film as a highly effective set-piece. There are a few moments of greatness such as this in "The Miracle At St. Anna", but far more over-simplification and tedium.

Lee has always been comfortable working with the fantastic. One of the absolute best moments in any film of his lies in that magically realized moment as Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) looks up and sees a basketball sailing out of the rafters of the gym towards him, launched from the prison yard by his convict father (Denzel Washington) from states away. It works. It's moving. And it succinctly identifies the cosmic kindred spirit that Lee has built up the entire movie. Some of these elements are at work here in "The Miracle At St. Anna", but they don't resonate. I admired what he was trying to do and really wanted to love this film, but it sinks pretty low on the list for me when compared to other trenchant views from Lee such as "Do the Right Thing", "Clockers" and even "Bamboozled" (a film that deserves a second look today!)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

70's Bonanza: "Smile"

Robert Altman's "Nashville" is generally regarded as the quintessential and sprawling masterpiece of the 70's that best encompasses a wide swath of political, cultural and religious factions of people. It's three hours long and serves as a microcosm for the United States (or at least middle America) and it still registers strongly as a descriptive and incisive time capsule of the period. I propose an alternative take- in the form of Michael Ritchie's "Smile". Released in the same year as "Nashville" (1975), it's a film that posits itself in small town California and reveals ideas and personalities just as deeply insightful about America as Altman's prescient vision. Instead of being a wide view of the people trying to make it in the country music scene, "Smile" fashions a black comedy around the surface artificiality of a beauty pageant. And while "Nashville" ultimately sinners into an angry evocation of political malice, "Smile" accomplishes the same feeling of lost innocence in smaller, more human increments. This is, simply put, one of the best films of that decade.

And in addition to that high praise, director Michael Ritchie is probably one of the most overlooked directors of the decade as well. Just look at his track record from 1969 to 1976- seven years saw the release of "Downhill Racer", "Prime Cut", "The Candidate", "Smile" and "The Bad News Bears". An amazing batch of films. Based on a screenplay by Jerry Belson, "Smile" stars Bruce Dern as the good 'ol American dad tasked with being the head judge of the Young American Miss beauty pageant as it stumbles into the small California town of Santa Rosa. Interspersed around the huge local event, we see glimpses of the seething imperfections beneath the pseudo glamorous surface. Dern's youngest son, 'Little Bob' (Eric Shea), is eventually arrested for being a peeping tom outside the dressing room windows of the beauty contestants- contestants including Melanie Griffith, Colleen Camp and Annette O'Toole. Dern's best friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), is the town drunk, suffering the onslaught of depression and avoiding his frigid wife, a former beauty pageant winner played by Barbara Feldon. The only advice that Dern can give his best friend is to "cheer up" and attend the local Knights of Columbus dinner later in the week... a dinner which, in and of itself, turns into a marvelously twisted set piece that requires all the men to dress up in white robes and force certain members to kiss the butt of an uncooked chicken. In the relationship between Dern and Andy comes the film's most searing example of suburban malaise. Even though Dern (and the whole town) believe that the ensuing pageant will somehow wash clean their problems, the influx of beautiful girls only magnifies their statical lives. There are old beauty queen winners struggling to deal with mid-life crisis, janitors who see the whole contest as another excuse to drink on the job and the fact that Dern can't control his own family. Even the beauty pageant contestants discover that life in small town California is not the answer to their boredom. While examining the self-conscious issues that surely arise from every angle of the beauty contest, "Smile" most acutely emphasizes the disconnect that exists in virtually every character searching for that elusive American Dream, whether they're competing or not.

Scathingly funny and full of wonderfully composed observations, "Smile" deserves to be re-assessed today. I dare anyone to screen this film and "Nashville" back to back and not come away inspired by both filmmakers and their genuine understanding of their day and age. "Smile" is the perfect title for a film that masks itself as a comedy when its true intent is to peel away the malcontent surface of its characters and their environment- and in the meantime pave the way for every other "suburban anomie" film from the works of Linklater to "American Beauty". Probably the most revelatory moment of "Smile" comes in its final scene. Obviously disturbed and disillusioned by the entire affair (and that the pageant itself is over, relegating him to just an RV salesman again), Dern approaches three marines as they're wrapping up an American flag on stage in the empty auditorium. He comments to them with, "You boys sure did a nice job." He then tells them he was in a certain division of the military and is met with a "yes, sir." The soldiers turn to walk off when one of the soldiers mumbles "you see the tits on miss san jose?" It's just yet another small chink in the armor for a man looking for something decent and traditional in a life that no longer matters. Solace and understanding can't even be found in America' s finest... and artificiality reigns supreme again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #19

It's been over two months since I last visited this series of posts, but I suppose I've had plenty of other things to write about... which is always a nice problem to have. The next ten titles in my queue are as follows, though I suspect they'll get moved around endlessly as I begin to line up a long selection of horror films in honor of Halloween.

1. The Untouchable- The ubiquitous French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot's latest film about a girl searching for her father who gets lost in India. Jacquot has always made small, uncompromising films and I look forward to this one.
2. An Obsession- This film from Shinji Aoyama, whose 3 hour "Eureka" from 2000 remains a masterwork (and unavailable on DVD or VHS), appears to be his debut, released in a box set with three other early works. This one is described as a "shadowy thriller".
3. Fort Apache, the Bronx- Early 80's Paul Newman flick about a New York being ostracized after witnessing a fellow cop commit murder. I'll pretty much watch anything with Newman.
4. Not For Or Against- Directed by Cedric Klapisch ("Un Air de Famille")... after seeing "Tell No One" recently, I've been inspired to check out some other French thrillers. I've seen all the usual suspects in this genre, so I"m having to dig a little deeper and this one sounds promising- from Netflix: "Charismatic thief Jean (Vincent Elbaz) asks dedicated Parisian camerawoman Caty (Marie Gillain) to film his next robbery. Caty takes the assignment, seduced not only by Jean but also by a life of crime. With every job, the stakes get higher, until Caty agrees to take part in a large-scale heist that could put her life on the line.
5. Police Tapes- Mid 70's documentary about a TV crew that tagged along with various officers in a downtown New York precinct. Winner of several Emmy's, I've never heard of it before. Worth a shot.
6. Season of the Witch- One of the early George Romero films I've never seen, I assume this was recently put out on DVD? I certainly don't remember it being available while I was tracking down all his films last year. This one deals with witches (obviously) and black magic.
7. La Balance- Another French 'policier', "La Balance's" plot synopsis is as follows: "After most of their moles are killed, a band of ruthless police detectives find it necessary to enlist a new narc to get the skinny on a major drug ring. The vice squad chooses Dede Laffont (Philippe Leotard) -- an intriguing pimp who's tight with the drug traffickers -- to snitch on his old boss, who's now his nemesis."
8. Wild Life- Second film in the Aoyama box set, this one from the late 90's about a boxer trying to deal with police, gangsters, throwing fights and a missing daughter. I'm really curious to dig into Aoyama's early efforts here.
9. The Third Generation- Honestly, I'm usually very bored by Fassbinder's films. I don't always gel with his sensibilities and he's a bit too graphic at times ("Querelle" anyone?) for my tastes, but this is one of the few I haven't seen and it deals with a sect of radicals involved with mayhem and violence. I'm not expecting much knowing Fassbinder's penchant for pretty much draining the life out of genre, but I'll give it a shot.
10. Joe- Early 70's film starring the great Peter Boyle as a man helping his friend scour the seedy parts of a city for his runaway daughter. Highly regarded as a counter-culture classic.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Links and Shameless Self Promotion

First, to get the self promotion out of the way, you can click here to listen to an hour long Blog Talk Radio program that I've been privileged to co-host with my good buddy Chris from his Trashcan Odorous Jr blog. We've got a good slot each week (Saturday 1-2pm central and 2-3 eastern) and we're both surprised how well the first gig came out. We spent a little more time talking about sports than film (which is our main purpose) but what the hell, it's our show. If you get past the 30 minute mark, we actually discuss film. And we had some great interaction from various people who stopped in. Very fun stuff and I look forward to show #2 in a long, illustrious career!

From Toronto, Telluride and Venice, two films caught my attention that I need to see now. First, Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" (see clip below) and a Danish film directed by Ole Christian Madsen entitled Flame and Citron. This looks and sounds like a modern re-working of Alan Clarke's "Elephant", and I can never ignore a good old fashioned Resistance drama.

And, wow, is it October already? That means time to roll out the horror flicks and get my Netflix queue loaded with some scary, thrilling or gory titles and enjoy the dark recesses of the month. Two blogs, Piper's Lazy Eye Theatre blog promises some eerie shit while at The Kinetoscope Parlor, he dares us to watch at least one horror movie a day. Ouch. Now that's scary.

And finally, a blogathon announcement by He Shot Cyrus asking for everyone to submit their best post ever. That could be some seriously great reading.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Last One To the Office Party

I'm a TV junkie. The ironic thing is though... I watch very little TV broadcasts upon first premier. While the sitcom schedule is in full swing during weeknights, I'll spend my time watching baseball or the continual flow of DVD's that arrives at my home via Netflix. With the exception of very few shows in the last five years, I've always played catch-up on DVD. With the window of release shrinking between first-run and DVD production, it just makes sense. The idea of getting hooked on a show and then having to wait an entire week to see more is a pretty frustrating idea. I'd rather have control of the entire season and take my time with it or devour it in one sitting. I caught up to "The Wire" after nearly three seasons. With "24", I watched sporadic episodes during the first season (and we all know how chaotic that can be) and then started over and patiently waded through each season upon release to DVD. "Generation Kill" is currently waiting for me on two discs "tivo'd" by family. So, with those admissions of procrastination out, is it any wonder that I'm probably the last person on the planet to finally dig into "The Office"?

After tearing through the first two seasons on disc over the past couple weeks, I finally understand what all the fuss is about. I completely understand the 'adorability' of Jenna Fischer as Pam. I "get" why Rainn Wilson is so popular and inspires snickers whenever he turns up on-screen in movies ("Juno"). And I'm fully ready to proclaim "The Office" as yet another high watermark in the rapidly evolving culture of modern sitcom comedy. Like "Arrested Development", this is comedy for the ADD crowd... and that's by no means an insult (though with movies, that statement is truly condescending). The visual gags, the quick reaction shots and the witty dialogue come so fast that if one turns away, they're liable to miss the funniest moment of the episode. I admire comedy that works competently- comedy that relies on reaction shots and silence to garner the biggest laugh. "The Office" excels in it. But buried amongst the laughs, there also lies real heart. While boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) continually makes me want to rip his face off, at times his character breaks through with an emotional reverberation that balances the obnoxious with the human. Examples such as his sealing the deal with a prospective client (Tim Meadows) over dinner at Chili's by shedding his insecurities and acting like a normal guy or the way he walks the young daughter of Human Resources employee Toby (Paul Lieberstein) to her car after forming a gentle bond during the "Bring Your Daughter To Work" episode give us glimpses into a fully realized character. He can repulse or surprise at any second. "The Office" is full of these dynamic moments.

Though there are plenty of characters to like, I think my favorite is Stanley, played by Leslie David Baker. Sure, I'm becoming increasingly wrapped up in the sexual tension between Pam and Jim (John Krasinski) that, I hear, is building towards a huge kiss that had all the fans rejoicing, but it's Stanley who gravitates around the edge of the frame and cracks me up with every single line reading. His world weary, supremely pissed off demeanor feels like so many people I know. In the words of Danny Glover, if anyone is "too old for this shit", then it's Stanley. Here's a man who just wants to come in, do his work, eat his lunch and do his crosswords. If that's not the realistic American work ethic, I don't know what is. While "The Office" is full of larger-than-life caricatures, Stanley feels authentic. And that's the greatness of "The Office"- it never sacrifices comedy for authenticity. I bet 1 in 5 people who watch the show think "wow, that's my office". The show may have been culled from a distinctly British outlook, but Steve Carell and company have transformed it into a remarkably apt take on small town America... insecurities, indecision and all. Did I also mention it's incredibly funny?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Movie Moment: Once

At a trip to the local Blockbuster a while back, I picked up "Once", that little musical indie-that-could from last year. And a note... I don't know if it's just the Blockbusters here in DFW or what, but they are fastidiously becoming the one place I purchase cheap, like-new DVD's. During my latest trip, I picked up copies of "American Gangster", "The Lives of Others", "Network" and "Once" in the 4 for $20 bin. All of them played with no problems and no noticeable disc scratching that's indicative of some rental movies. Score one for me.

So, in watching "Once" again for the first time since late last year, this movie holds up just as nicely on repeat viewings. The relationship between Hansard and Irglova remains moving and nuanced. The music rattles across the screen with heart. And the ending is still perfect. This is just a pure joy to behold. And the above scene stands as my favorite of the movie... the way that the musicians (who are basically strangers) gel and spontaneously create some awesome music together, and in the way the jaded music producer slowly looks up from behind the glass and recognizes the brilliance of this rag-tag group. If I ranked my end of the year film moments lists, this scene would probably make it pretty close to the top.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Parallax View: The Coen Brothers Latest

Even a day later, I'm still smiling about certain scenes in the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading". There's the (almost in-joke like) way that Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) mumbles "and what the fu** is Palmer doing here?" in the opening scene, referring to some nameless guy sitting behind him. Then there's the way Chad (Brad Pitt, in a soon-to-be iconic performance for the Coen Brothers loose-screw catalog of personalities) carries out his first blackmail phone call to Cox- a scene and line reading that got the hardest laughter I've ever felt in a movie theater from a crowd. And then we have the chair that Harry (Goerge Clooney) builds for his wife. I'll let that visual joke stand on its own. The point in all this? There may be snide and simple critical pans about the Coen Brothers lack of artistic determination post-Oscar, but for my money "Burn After Reading" is a near perfect example of two filmmakers who boundlessly jump from genre to genre without a hint of pretension. "Burn After Reading" will needlessly be compared to "The Big Lebowski" for nothing less than the fact it was the comedic follow-up to their other previous reach for critical acceptance with "Fargo". I'm prepared to say that "Burn After Reading" should (and will) hold up as an equal counterpart to that bawdy LA noir we all know and love.

Like the best of their work, "Burn After Reading" places us, geographically, in a very specific time and place. This time its current Washington DC, Langley and Georgetown. An added bonus to all this- filmed in DC along some of the very same sights I walked three weeks ago including the memorial bridge and those green park benches that line the reflecting pond in between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Like "The Big Lebowski", "Burn After Reading" tries to settle into a genre (the spy thriller) but never really commits. There is some talk of selling intelligence secrets, but the main people are just as clueless about their plan as the kidnappers in "The Big Lebowski". The real focus of "Burn After Reading" is the ill-conceived and completely inane motivations that drive screw ball personalities into even screwier circumstances. Everyone is sleeping with someone else, there may (or may not be) people tailing Justice department employee George Clooney and there's a head of the CIA (played to whimsical perfection by J.K. Simmons) who just wants everything to go away. Every line of dialogue, every stutter, every puppy-dog glance by fitness manager Richard Jenkins and every long drawn out speech by Tilda Swinton's lawyer (we know how the Coen's love verbose 40's speak right?) hit the right note in the Coen universe. These aren't real people, but humorously designed personalities that leap off the screen. And when you throw in top secret intelligence and blackmail, well then the whole affair gets messy. "Burn After Reading" excels in the messiness and ends on such a jarring note, that the Coen Brothers are quickly becoming masters of the anti-climactic finale in their last two films. Judging from some of the reactions I heard while leaving the theater, people are just as dumbfounded and upset due to the film's lack of a 'logical' conclusion as they were about "No Country For Old Men" and its contemplative cut to black. Jarring in both cases, yes, but for me they both work exceptionally.

I wrote an earlier post describing how "The Big Lebowski" is an eerily conceived re-interpretation of Ivan Passer's 1981 film "Cutter's Way". Not quite as overt, but "Burn After Reading" would serve as a blissful companion piece to Ronald Naeme's 1980 comedy "Hopscotch" about a CIA operative (Walter Matthau) who is demoted and then begins writing his memoirs, using each chapter as a taunting device to the agency as he mails it to them in pieces from around the world. Globetrotting and consistently entertaining in the same dry humor displayed by the Coen Brothers, "Hopscotch" is certainly more trusting of its character's intelligence, yet the world of the CIA bureaucracy is just as demented and infantile. While "Burn After Reading" cares less about the actual government agency and more about the paranoia of big brother, both films offer a dark and scandalous picture of Washington security bureaus. I'm not suggesting that the Coen Brothers have lifted any ideas. There's always room in this world for two great CIA comedies. "Burn After Reading" is also just simply a great "comedy".

Friday, September 12, 2008

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

I probably shouldn't make light of the hurricane, but when you've watched as much coverage as I have today, a clip like this kinda makes it all worth it. Genius. And the pink bowtie is my favorite part. Feels like something me and a group of my friends might have done several years ago (you know who you are).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Recently Seen

Tell No One

"Tell No One", directed by Guillaume Canet and based on a novel by American writer Harlan Coben, has lingered in the art house just long enough for me to catch it. I think the strong buzz has bounced around most of the city as my early afternoon screening was almost sold out. Nice to see a French thriller getting that much recognition. And it deserves it. Alexander (Francios Cluzet) is a mild mannered pediatrician who loses his wife in an abduction that takes place on their family owned lake. Eight years later, he begins to receive e-mails from someone claiming to be his wife, which leads him down a compelling path to find out the truth about his wife's past. "Tell No One" should go down as an iconic modern French thriller. It's superbly paced, intricately plotted (so much so that you've got to pay attention early or very small details may pass you by and leave you in the dark when the conclusion rolls around) and exciting as hell. There are two scenes here- a rush to an Internet cafe tuned to a song by U2 and a chase across a busy French beltway- that are some of the most exciting moments I've seen on screen all year. This is the type of film where the lone image of a computer screen trying to connect to its server makes one hold their breath- it's that flawlessly executed. See this one if you can. One of my favs of the year so far.

"It's A Free World..."

In "It's a Free World...", kitchen-sink auteur Ken Loach has given the starring role to the exploiter instead of the exploited this time. Newcomer Kierston Wareing gives a superb performance as Angie, the attractive, tough and ambitious woman who gets fired from her job of corralling immigrant workers for labor unions in London. Fed up with the bureaucratic hypocrisies, she decides to start her own (unofficial) immigrant labor ring and comes face to face with the harsh realities of this menacing and shady underworld. As mentioned once, Wareing gives a tremendous performance, carrying the film on her shoulders. At times, Loach has his camera trained on her as if she were starring in a Dardennes brothers feature and she pushes forward with gusto, rarely leaving the scene and commanding every second. Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, "It's A Free World..." continues Loach's study of the downtrodden, yet this time his central character is a few rungs up the social ladder. It doesn't take long before desperation sets in, though, and Angie is struggling against the commercial grind of everyday life, forced to compromise her ambitions with amorality. More of a character study wrapped around a sharply observed milieu, this is yet another steady effort from Loach.


Jeffrey Nachmanoff's "Traitor" posits its world view on a razor sharp balancing act- part "Jason Bourne" like action thriller and part political commentary on the state of terrorism- and it's a shame that both aspects fall flat. It's hard to not wince a little at the anti-hero portrayed by Don Cheadle. Here's an action hero who plants bombs (and sometimes accidentally kills people with them), watches a top ranking agent get shot down, and goes so deep undercover that no one knows whose side he's working on. I'm all for the non-traditional approach (I applauded when John Frankenheimer's "Ronin" actually showed innocent bystanders being mowed down by gunfire as collateral damage!) but with "Traitor", I never bought its nihilistic sense because everything has been cobbled from previous political thrillers. And the finale, while a true downer, is quickly glazed over for a preachy street meeting between Cheadle and a federal agent played by Guy Pearce. For all its supposed anger, "Traitor" can never decide between the nuanced approach and the kind that uses a sledgehammer to accelerate its rah-rah chest beating.

And now it's time to settle in with my full stock of tuna and hot dogs and "hunker down" as we say in Texas while Ike blows over. We're expecting it to be a freaking 1 category hurricane by the time it reaches just south of the Dallas metroplex. No fun for me this weekend, including a cancelled Mogwai show that I had tickets for. Oh well. Here's hoping at least the power stays on....

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

70's Bonanza- Un Flic

Also known as "A Cop" or "Dirty Money", "Un Flic" was Jean Pierre Melville's thirteenth and final film released in 1972. During the course of his last half dozen films (excluding the colorized "Army of Shadows" and "La Cercle Rouge"), Melville made a practice of distilling hard boiled American noir into simmering black and white (but distinctively French) incarnations of the genre. Fedora hats, trench coats, men who speak very little but command attention through their intense posturing, intricate heists- all of this was vintage and trademark Melville. But while "Un Flic" flourishes in the same characteristic gestures as those before it, it's also a whole new animal. This is film noir with the blood drained out of it. The story itself- involving a band of bank robber and one policeman's search for them- is stripped down to the most abstract and calculated of narratives. The opening bank heist, filmed in meticulous detail and eerie silence, focuses on small remnants rather than the adrenaline rush of the robbery itself. Quick cuts to hands holding guns, the careful coordination of the robbers' placement in the bank, and the wintry blue exterior call to mind a Bresson film- a film more interested in the outward dynamic architecture rather than the internal thought process. I'm just as guilty as the next guy for throwing around faux descriptions like "post" and "neo", but with "Un Flic", both terms are apt. Melville has jettisoned the fat that usually surrounds a noir and intensifies the diligent actions of his cops and robbers from start to finish. While alot of noirs pay strict attention to the careful logistics of the various robberies (which "Un Flic" does on two occasions as well), Melville highlights this dry observation throughout, permeating every breath in a cold and calculated manner.

While the action of "Un Flic" is meted out with this calculated digression, the emotions of its three main characters are just as muted. As the titular 'cop', Alain Delon casually shuffles through the film, methodically following up on leads and slapping informants around with little care other than worrying about ash being flicked on his suit from the cigarette that's constantly situated on his lips. He does allow himself some entertainment, often visiting night club owner Cathy (Catherine Denevue). In keeping with the theme of a woman trapped between the right guy and the wrong as played out in earlier Melville works, Cathy is involved with Delon as well as the leader of the bank robbers (played by Richard Crenna). Melville seems especially fond of the synchronicity between cop and crook. Their universes, he seems to say, are universally linked. With that in mind, it's only ironic that the biggest break for Delon in his pursuit of Crenna stems from the routine identification of a dead body. For a cop, Delon seems to be doing the least work possible and yet he still stumbles into the thick of things through his relationship with Cathy. And, in keeping with the icy facade of the whole film, the loudest turn of the narrative is gleaned over, ignored and barely processed without a single celebratory music key or framing device. Like the cold stare of Denevue (even while watching one of her lovers being gunned down), "Un Flic" is a harsh mood piece that looks and feels like a noir from outer space, refusing to allow any sentimentality to seep into its glacial heart. This may all sound like a dreadful experience, but it registers as a morose yet fitting way to end a career. In the wake of nostalgia, Melville may have created one of the most interesting noirs due to its very lack of similarity.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Produced and Abandoned: 12 Must Sees

I've been tagged by Adam at DVD Panache with another incarnation of the 12 movie meme. What originally started as this at Piper's Lazy Eye Theatre blog has completely morphed into something different courtesy of The Dancing Image.... and it's a doozy.

So, what are 12 films that I've never seen, desperately want to see, and virtually impossible to find. I had bits and pieces of movies lying around over the years, but combining them (and remembering them) was a whole different animal. I'm sure this list will change if I re-write it tomorrow, but as of right now, these are my 12 holy grail films, in no order:

1. A Brighter Summer Day- The one Edward Yang film that I have been able to see ("Yi Yi" in 2001) stands as a minor miracle, a film brimming with life and wonder. This 1991 film has never been released on home video in any form. With a run time of anywhere between 3 and 4 hours based on which source one references, "A Brighter Summer day" has only been shown in select repertory screenings. It's sad to say, but maybe with the passing of Yang at a young age last year, some of his works ("Majhong", " A Confucian Confusion" and "Taipei Story") will receive some type of exposure.

2. A Deadly Affair- As an earlier post expressed, I went a little obsessive over watching any and all Sidney Lumet films I could. With the exception of a handful that have never been released on VHS or DVD, the one that aggravates the most is his 1966 spy thriller entitled "A Deadly Affair". There are some region 2 copies floating around, but I don't feel like paying $35 plus. Here's hoping a recent retrospective at New York Film Forum will put pressure on certain distribution companies.

3. Los Angeles Plays Itself- Thom Anderson's paean to Los Angeles and its place in the movies will likely never get an official release due to its use of copyrighted film clips. It's still making the rounds for 1 or 2 showings in the city of angels, but its highly unlikely that Anderson's film (which he filmed for educational purposes for his California film studies classes) will ever see the light of day. I've been dying to see this thing since reading about it back in '05.

4. The Mattei Affair- Since watching some of Francesco Rosi's films late last year, I became immediately interested in his work. Part social commentary and heavy on Italian bureaucracy, his films are often sweeping examples of Italian life from the poor to the upper class, refusing to take a side and presenting a social problem from all angles. This film, charting the work, life and assassination of an industrial game-changer promises more of the same. Again, never released on any video format. For that matter, I'd love to see Rosi's other lost 70's films such as "Lucky Luciano" or "Illustrious Corpses".

5. Cold Water- As a staunch Olivier Assayas fan, it's a damn shame that none of his work before 1996's "Irma Vep" is available in this country. I read about this film and his other short works back in a mid-90's Film Comment article shortly after his international rise to stardom. Still yet to talk to anyone who's seen these films.

6. The Fixer- Another purely auteurist example- John Frankenheimer. I've managed to see all of his films except this one from '68 and the martial arts thriller called "The Challenge" in 1982. That movie is available on VHS (for over $50 on Ebay) but no sign of "The Fixer" which seems to follow Frankenheimer's early stage days as a film about a Jewish man kept in captivity for unjust reasons.

7. Last Night at the Alamo- This has been regarded as a regional legend for some time. Maverick Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell wrote and directed it back in '82 at the end of a career burning out on drugs and alcohol. It's been widely cited as the film that kick started a whole generation of Texas filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. Earlier this year, Pennell's 1979 film entitled "The Whole Shootin' Match" got a few revival screenings, so there's hope that other pieces of his work will surface.

8. The Outfit- If I wanted to spend at least $65 for a VHS copy I could, but other than that I missed my one chance to see this hard boiled 1973 film when it aired on TCM a few months back. No excuses. I fell asleep before it came on.

9. Slow Moves- Really just an excuse to decry the amount of Jon Jost that is available on video. Out of almost 15 films, only 2 are available in any format. One of the premier independent film godfathers, this 1977 film is just the beginning of his neglect. But, if anyone's interested, check out "The Bed You Sleep In" or "All the Vemeers In New York". His films are an acquired taste, but ones that pay dividends when in the right mood for his swaying music and textured images.

10. Mary- What the hell happened to Abel Ferrera? After 2001 and his film "R-Xmas", he's directed four films which have yet to see any distribution. Is it because he's making films in Europe and being financed by European studios? Still, the great word of mouth from film festival showings should be good enough to warrant a small release here, no? This 2003 film stars Juliet Binoche, Forest Whitaker, Heather Graham and Matthew Modine as a modern day version of Joseph and Mary (yes that Joseph and Mary).

11. Until the End of the World- This gets confusing. I have seen Wim Wenders' two and a half hour version of this dreamy sci-fi film (one of his very best) but there's also a four hour and five hour version out there. The four hour version played at a German film festival years ago and a reliable internet buddy (who was also a devotee of the film) once told me had seen the 5 hour version at a Florida film fest years ago. Regardless, there's a much larger cut of this film floating out there, and I'd love to get my hands on it.

12. Histories du Cinema- Jean Luc Godard's multi video essay has been weathered on the film festival circuit over the years, yet never received a formal release. So much of Godard's later work can easily be bogged down with pretentiousness, but he still manages to strike some beautiful moments. I'm betting this series would strike a lot of them.

So, the next five up include:

Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule
Evan at Club Parnassus
Caitlin at 1416 and Counting
The Kinetoscope Parlor
Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rails and Ties: Transsiberian

Director Brad Anderson is a chameleon. Working effortlessly in several genres and continually producing solid efforts, I've been an admirer of his films for years. There are idiosyncratic indies like "Next Stop Wonderland" and "Happy Accidents", or eerie horror films that hit all the right notes in "Session 9". Anderson has even ventured into psychological thriller mode in 2004's "The Machinist" starring a nutritionally depleted Christian Bale as a man whose grip on reality is sliding into the abyss. His latest film, "Transsiberian" (besides being blessed by the ubiquitous presence of Ben Kingsley) is another psychological thriller that traps a young woman (Emily Mortimer) firmly inside an international drug smuggling ring. More than half of the film takes place within the confined setting of a train traveling from China to Moscow as Mortimer and husband (Woody Harrelson) meet another young couple, Carlos (Eduard Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). It doesn't take long for the unspoken tensions in the young Abby to clue us in that something disturbing is boiling just beneath the surface, added by the fact that in the opening scenes, a Russian detective (Kingsley) is investigating a murder which may involve stolen drugs.

"Transsiberian" slowly tightens the screws on its two couples. Mortimer and Harrelson are portrayed as the "gee-whiz" American couple in for a much darker experience in the vast unknown foreign wilderness, punctuated by some shots of the train plowing through enormous snow-covered landscapes that will definitely put a chill in you. The disappearances, luggage mix-ups and suspicious glances begin to mount in terrific style. And when Kingsley shows up again 2/3 of the way through, "Transsiberian" turns dark and violent without losing any psychological weight. But though Harrelson and Mortimer have the starring roles, the real stand out here is Kate Mara. Not just a beautiful face, she rolls through the film as the most complex personality. Obviously being manipulated by her own personal demons, she gives a nuanced performance and in the end, this is certainly more her tale than anyone else.

Many people have used the Hitchcock comparison to identify "Transsiberian" and honestly, anytime you feature two people on a train, the references are bound to follow. But with so many psychological thrillers being lazily labeled as such, "Transsiberian" deserves much more. Playing in limited release, it hopefully will receive a larger push once the summer blockbusters begin dying away.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Top 5 List: Nazi Hunting

One of the highly enjoyable by-products of Netflix is the ability to create customized lists which serve as suggestions for DVD titles. I've spent hours combing through some of these lists from fellow subscribers- sometimes to find movies I want to watch, but more often than not in complete awe of the creativity and wit that went into the creation of them. Where else could you find 15 movies described as "The best of Alan Alda" or "Independent Classics" that totals 65 films from the likes of "Wanda" to "The Exiles". Point being, each list is a treasure trove. Secondarily, as list-crazy as I am, they serve as excellent ways to categorize my own personal favorites... in which lists such as "police procedural", "films with Texas as a character" and "sunshine noir" currently exist.

The latest list I made (represented by this top 5 list) is a unique sub genre. A few weeks back, I watched "The Odessa File" directed by the workmanlike Ronald Neame. Here was a film starring Jon Voight as a journalist of German descent who becomes entangled in his own personal search for a Nazi war criminal who escaped after World War 2 with the help of a shady organization known as Odessa. Competently executed and continually engrossing, this is a fantastic film that seems to never get any real word of mouth. I started thinking back on a number of 'Nazi hunting' films and remembered each one as just as equally watchable (of course, Tarantino's upcoming adaptation of "Inglorious Bastards", based on an Italian film of the same name will probably explode this genre into the limelight, and rightfully so). So, the top 5 films about Nazi hunting. Am I forgetting any?

1. The Odessa File - As mentioned above, Neame's film is a tense mixture of social commentary and cold war intrigue. As a German journalist, Voight goes undercover to infiltrate the Odessa group and locate a Nazi war criminal who he read about in a dead Jewish man's diary. All types of moral and political compromise come into play- the guilt of German people to rationalize the atrocities carried out during the war and Voight's own realization of his family's involvement during the same time. There is one scene, where Voight discovers the location of a fraudulent document maker for the Odessa group, that spans over 20 minutes and is a perfect example of slowly escalating tension within a set piece.

2. Judgement At Nuremberg- While many films on this list take a fictional re-telling and spruce it up in grand Hollywood fashion, Stanley Kramer's star studded visualization of the war trials plays everything close to the truth. Sure, there are big name actors mugging it up on the screen, but "Judgement At Nuremberg" has its heart in the right place and there are some genuinely moving moments. Part courtroom drama and part confessional, it remains a film that tackles a gaping issue with moral responsibility and respect. And you know, Maximillian Schell made a living acting in these Nazi hunting films. I count three on this list.

3. Hotel Terminus, The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie- A slightly different take on the sub genre but no less involving. Max Ophuls' sprawling tapestry (over 4 hours) of Nazi SS soldier Klaus Barbie, his life, work and now peaceful existence in South America should be required viewing for anyone wanting a deep sense of the murky reasons for complicity during the second World War. Ophuls doesn't identify or destroy the man, but through years of spliced footage and personal interviews, it becomes almost impossible to reduce anyone to a simple explanation. Like a majority of the Nazi war criminals who escaped Germany, they ended up in Bolivia or Argentina, which is where Barbie is eventually discovered. "Hotel Terminus" gives a factual slant to the fictional ideas. It should go well as counter-programming to the other films on this list.

4. The Stranger- Orson Welles' third film as a director finds him disguised as a former Nazi working as a teacher in a small Connecticut town with Edward Robinson hot on his tail. Filmed in 1946 way before the genre became fashionable, "The Stranger" is, remarkably, often tagged as Welles' worst effort. Some of the dialogue is stilted, but its still a deceptively intriguing film with some highly memorable moments such as an impalement on top of a clock tower.

5. The Boys From Brazil- The most out there film on the list, this late 70's film charts the discovery of an ex Nazi scientist (Gregory Peck) who intends to clone small children with the DNA of former Nazi generals and start his own army! Laurence Olivier has the duty of tracking down the group. Seriously, I smile a little even when I write it, yet Franklin Schnaffer's film belongs on this list simply because it is so outlandish. Beneath the quirky science-fiction aspect, "The Boys From Brzail" is a total guilty pleasure that takes the Nazi hunting sun genre to delirious new heights. It is readily available on DVD and TCM, so check it out if you ever get the chance. You won't be disappointed.

Notable mention- "Marathon Man".

Big thanks to IMPA movie posters for their invaluable online service