Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie Endings

This post is a contribution to the Endings-Blogathon hosted at Valley Dreamin'.

What makes a great ending? I don't know if I can put it into words. Or if anyone can. We just know when an ending is perfect. Whether it leaves us with a gasp or a smile or a devastated feeling of being punched in the gut, films can achieve a cathartic transformation when they end on just that right note. My favorite ending and a very worthy entry into this blogathon has to be the final scene in Nick Gomez's 1992 indie drama "Laws of Gravity"... which I wrote about here earlier this year. Little seen and even more under represented on any home video form, the film is a cinema verite observation of four New York hoods, scratching and clawing their way for survival through petty shoplifting, incessant shit-talking and dealing firearms. It may sound especially hard to gain empathy for these lackluster burn outs, but actors Peter Greene and Adam Trese form a unique brotherly bond that echoes quietly throughout the film. As Jimmy, Peter Greene is constantly trying to simmer the short fuse that often explodes within Tommy (Trese). **Spoiler.. if you care, read no further** After 90 minutes of protective shelter, Jimmy turns his back for one second and the inevitable happens. But the power of this film's final scene is not in the death of Tommy, lying bleeding on the sidewalk in front of a bar, but the helpless way in which Greene hovers over the lifeless body, screaming for people to get back and give him some air, and constantly yelling out for "Sal!" "Sal!".. as the neighborhood father figure who never comes to help. Then, the sharp fade to black as the voice of Jimmy lingers over the fade out for a good minute, desperately pleading for people to "get the fuck back! Go home! Go home! Sal!" In the crowd of 90's indie cinema that charts some of the same territory, the desperation is the same. But in "Laws of Gravity", director Gomez makes you feel the loss of one life wasting away on the hot New York sidewalk like no one else.

One example of the languid brilliance of "Laws of Gravity". Admire the long take:

And a few honorable mentions:

Peter Weir's "Fearless" from 1993. This ending gives me chills everytime. Rent it today!

Abel Ferrera's "King of New York":

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia"
Roman Polanski's Chinatown

Stanley Kubrick's "Dr Strangelove":

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A David Fincher Tear Jearker?

Would it be wrong to declare that I sorely miss the clinical David Fincher over this new... softie? Immediately after returning home from the maudlin-fest that is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", I popped in last year's "Zodiac" and cleansed the palette. Now that's a film that gets better with each new viewing... a film that offers up a new interpretation through its detached gaze of obsession of procedure... a film that heightens the intellect through small, meticulous ways such as the speech given by Downey Jr. towards the end... and especially a film that expertly marries Fincher's formal technique on a collision course with the saturated and beautifully dark HD images of night time California. I honestly doubt I'll ever have the inclination to watch "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button " again. Some have stated that it might be a film that gets better with age- i.e. meaning that us young 'uns must not be able to appreciate love and loss on the same profound scale as our elders!?- but for me, its message did hit home, moved me subtlety at times, but ultimately wore out its welcome after the 2 hour mark when the path of star-crossed lovers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shared yet another dreamy moment designed to stimulate the tear ducts. For anyone who wishes to see games of coincidence and chance played out between star-crossed lovers done without the turgid (and obvious) backdrop of history paraded in front, check out the works of Julio Medem who does this type of thing flawlessly, on a smaller budget, and with considerable less green screen.

But part of the blame has to lie squarely on the shoulders of writer Eric Roth. The thought of this being "Forrest Gump" part two is inescapable. The parallels are too eerie to swat away. The same type of colorful, cartoonish characters pop up along the journey, the most annoying being Jared Harris as the good hearted captain of a tugboat whose spirit seems to morph, posthumously, into a hummingbird and flies away. I'm not kidding. It's exactly this type of fairy-tale metaphor that ultimately overtakes "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and evolves into that type of film ... the dreaded overbearing Oscar-bait epic type. In certain instances, flights of whimsy like this can lift a film into the upper echelon ("Breaking the Waves" anyone?). In "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" this diluted any good natured harmony I'd built up for the film. Things turned cloying, dis ingenious, and ultimately I just wanted the misery to end. I want the Eric Roth of "The Insider" and "Munich" back.

The film isn't a total loss even though my previous two hundred words makes it seem that way. The film does look incredible, holds a moving score by Alexander Desplat and Cate Blanchett, by god, manages to look even hotter than ever before. How does she do that? Fincher holds restraint over most of the images, relying on a firmly planted camera to slowly pan and descend the green/brown interiors, and there are two or three scenes where a bright light is planted directly behind the face of the main character that casts an ominous silhouette over the person. I found myself much more involved in the way a scene was lit or the details in the background then the platitudes of loneliness and loss that was developing within the film. This is never a good thing. Like the speculative final moments of "Zodiac" which forces the viewer to assess everything that's come before and make an educated guess, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" leaves nothing to the imagination, except why Roth and Fincher chose to frame this ages-long love story against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. I suppose its par for the course when one is piling misery upon misery.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Doubt

Bringing a play to the big screen is always a tenuous task. In some cases, the restrictive nature of the stage hinders its celluloid interpretation, which forces the filmmaker to 'open up' the play, which seems to further dilute the power of the written word in the first place. I'm not thinking of any play-to-film specifically. But when it does work exceptionally well- i.e. pretty much any Mamet but especially "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" or most of Neil Simon- very little can compare to the kinetic energy thrown off by the ensemble cast. That's pretty much the case with John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt". From the opening scene where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is delivering a sermon about doubt and moral uncertainty (what else), this film sank its hooks in me. More than a review, I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about this film.

1. Even though I didn't grow up in the specific milieu of "Doubt" (mid 1960's New York), I am a Catholic and did serve as an alter boy, so the familiarity of tradition, ritual and respect hit home immediately.
2. Granted, this is an actor's movie. Sit back and enjoy the sparks that fly between Meryl Streep and Hoffman as opposing sides of a belief. But more than that, I read Shanley's attempt as a direct confrontation between progressive religious ideals and the more traditional, stoic outlook on Catholicism. This is highlighted in quite entertaining flourishes as we successively witness the male priests drinking, smoking and telling jokes, and then cut to the solemn and quiet meal between the nuns- complete with milk and neatly divided foods on their plates.
3. The common complaint with "Doubt" is Shanley's obvious moral uncertainty about which side he falls on. Did Father Flynn really commit the actions Sister Aloyious (Streep) firmly believes he did? Or is it something completely fabricated since she opposes his modern flair for niceties? I couldn't care less what Shanley believes. Part of the intensity in watching "Doubt" is how subtly certain points are drawn. I have a pretty good idea what I think took place, but that interpretation could be diametrically opposed to what the person sitting next to me felt. As a conversation starter, "Doubt" situates itself precariously in the middle and one idea from one person could tip it one way or the other. There's certainly nothing wrong with a cinematic experience opening up numerous channels of dialogue. We need more of that today.
4. Viola Davis' one scene with Meryl Streep as the mother of the boy believed to be involved in the film's central conundrum, is definitely everything you've read about. She will receive an Oscar nomination, but don't let the powerhouse acting obfuscate the meaning of her scene. So much is said in very little and shaded ways. I found myself so wrapped up in her performance as an emotionally distraught mother that I may have missed the real explanation.
5. Damn Amy Adams is adorable. But then "The Office" should have taught me that.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Recently Seen

Cadillac Records

I admit to a strong bias on this one. My first job as a young teenager was working in a record/baseball card shop where I got paid in product. Yes, $45 a week in something can very quickly bulk up a sturdy collection of anything. And this is where I built up a 200+ record collection of blues masters (both black and white). This is where I first heard early Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds), Rolling Stones, Alexis Korner, The Animals.... and then I discovered the guys behind these guys. Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf- a lifelong fascination was firmly rooted.And yes, I still treasure my record collection today, featuring some original issues of these masters as I grew older and had actual money to invest. Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records" is a competent spin through the boisterous years of my favorite blues greats as Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) built up a stable of blues musicians and, in turn, spawned a whole new generation of musical talent. The film, focusing on the family-like atmosphere that develops (and then degrades) between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and harmonica pioneer Little Walter (Columbus Short), is big on heart. Satellite relationships, such as the introduction of Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chuck Berry (a lively Mos Def) and Howlin Wolf (Eamonn Walker) helps paint "Cadillac Records" as yet another music biopic that often succeeds more than it falters. Certain aspects are a little glib and certainly manipulated for maximum Hollywood effect, but the central performances of Wright and Knowles are (pardon the pun) electric. As Etta James, Knowles lights up the screen and when she belts out classics such as "At Last", I found my emotions soaring. She makes you feel the zing of passionate music being spewed out with equal fiery and painful remembrance. Writer and director Darnell Martin doesn't do anything flashy. He allows the performances to carry the film. And in this regard, "Cadillac Records" is head and shoulders better than the lazy paint by numbers "Ray", yet it'll probably be overlooked both commercially and critically.

Milk not spoiler-free!

Shades of the morose drape Gus Van Sant's "Milk" from the very beginning, but it's to the credit of Van Sant, writer Dustin Lance Black and lead actor Sean Penn that the film rises above its inevitable sad conclusion by instilling such vibrant humanity in every character. Penn shines in the lead role as gay activist turned politician Harvey Milk (naturally) but it's the supporting cast that forms the real joyous core of "Milk". James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin provide miraculous supporting performances as members in (varying) aspects of the moral rainbow kick started by the right time and place- namely San Francisco in the late 70's when police beatings and routine discrimination against its growing homosexual population became the unofficial policy. Like any good bio-pic, "Milk" hits the right notes and duly checks off the high tide events, but the film managed to win me over regardless of its somewhat rudimentary framework. Again, the performances are so good it draws you in immediately. And when the inevitable does happen, Van Sant punctuates the moment in haunting and heartbreaking ways. Like he did with "Last Days" and especially "Elephant", the tracking shot becomes a fore bearer of evil. The minute the camera slowly tracks behind Supervisor Dan White (Brolin) down the halls of San Francisco's city building, you can taste violence in the air. A very good film.

A few minor blurbs about some others:

Step Brothers- I don't know why I continue to bother with these improvised Will Ferrell comedies. The best thing about this one is seeing Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins go crazy and say things like "what the fucking fuck?"

Blood of My Blood-Remember when the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance actually meant something for the recipient? At the very least, it meant respectable art house buzz and a generous push to a limited audience (thinking "Slam", "Three Seasons", "Welcome To the Dollhouse" or "You Can Count On Me"). With Christopher Zalla's "Blood of My Blood", it gets an unceremonious dump in early 2008, a full year after winning the prestigious Sundance acclaim. It's a decent little movie, following the divergent paths of two Mexican immigrants as they scrap and claw for a livelihood in the brutal concrete jungle of New York. While I personally wouldn't have garnered it with any awards, it's unusual to see the Sundance pedigree waning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trailers I Love

I haven't been a huge fan of Sam Mendes. While his films always seem to deal with 'heavy themes' that feel like an over-sized reach towards Oscar validation, his efforts do look technically classy. However, I still curl away at the pretentious, brow beating moments in his Hollywood calling card, "American Beauty" (it's only a floating paper bag, people, get over it!). There were some genuine and startingly great moments in "Road To Perdition" and "Jarhead", but both left me pretty empty. Yet, through all my ineffectual feelings towards his previous films, something looks and feels right about his latest trip through suburban malaise in "Revolutionary Road". Whether it's the way the crooning music perfectly elicits the era or the possibility of seeing Kate and Leo really tear up the screen, I don't know... but I do know I'll be there front and center for this one.

And, to add a little more anticipation to "Revolutionary Road's" 50's nostalghia, take a gander at this photo in luminous black and white.

Posted on the website First Showing Net, there are a few others one can check out. There's something intimately relaxed and intriguing about the placement of Kate and Leo during some downtime. It could have been staged for rubes like me to think it's genuine, but its hard to deny the grace of the photograph.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Love Bites: Let the Right One In

As someone who appreciated the graphic novel roots of "30 Days of Night" from last year, I'm doubly impressed by the subtle brilliance of Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In". While David Slade's vampire interpretation was full of fast and brutal limb-tearing ferocity, Alfredson works at the other end of the spectrum, giving the genre a refreshing spin. Alfredson- clearly a talent to watch- infuses such simple honesty into each and every frame of his unique vision that, by the time the film's magical final image rolls around, I didn't want it to stop. Alas, that's the beauty of crafting such a well balanced film.

Descriptions of "Let the Right One In" could encompass so many genres- horror film, suburban teen angst (albeit in a very cold, nontraditional setting), awkward adolescent love story, coming-of-age melodrama... everything fits and evokes a specific reaction. So many ideas and emotions are crammed into the film that choosing any one of these would be sufficient. Twelve year old Oskar (Kara Hedebrandt) is alienated, bullied relentlessly at school and spends his free time along at night stabbing trees with his knife as vengeful thoughts rattle around in his head. In the cramped, non descript apartment housing where he lives, a new neighbor moves in overnight. Soon, Oskar meets Eli (Lina Leannderson). With long black hair that covers her pale white face, carrying an odd odor and seemingly ambivalent towards the mounds of snow that pile up around her as she wanders around barefoot, the two form a relationship that teeters on the brink of first love. But, it's not long after that we (and eventually Oskar) realize that Eli is hiding a dark secret. This brief description makes "Let the Right One In" sound ordinary, I know. What director Alfredson does with this mundane idea, though, is a wonder to behold. Through carefully modulated performances by both young actors and expertly framed compositions that draw out an impending sense of violence, "Let the Right One In" is a masterpiece of economical filmmaking. Tension and effect are choreographed in precise camera placement, such as the above shot for one scene in a bathroom which tells us everything and nothing. Still, the real hook of "Let the Right One In" resides in the central relationship between Oskar and Eli. Take out some of the bloodshed, and you've got the framework for a perfectly realized modern day Grimm fairy tale. Instead, we get a genuine adult treat that ranks as one of the year's most fantastic experiences.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #21

I apologize for light posting this week. It's been a busy one. I've got some reviews I've been meaning to bang out (especially one on "Let the Right One In"), so hopefully next week provides the opportunity. In the meantime, next 10 titles in my queue:

1. Expect the Unexpected- Late 90's Patrick Yau film about a group of Hong Kong thieves whose bank robbery goes "horribly awry". I remember quite a bit of art house buzz about this.
2. The Free Will- German film released earlier this year about a rapist released back onto the streets. The subject matter sounds harsh, and everything I've read about this paints it as a rather unpleasant viewing experience. Time to see for myself.
3. Bang the Drum Slowly- Yes, the DeNiro I'm-dying-male-baseball-weepie from the 70's Never seen it.
4. The Boost- 80's film starring James Woods as a drug addict. Directed by the workmanlike Harold Becker whose made his share of watchable adult dramas.
5. Ace In the Hole- Classic Kirk Douglas film about a journalist fanning the flames of a mining accident in New Mexico. Directed by Billy Wilder. I know I've seen this film on TCM years ago, but its due for a re-visit.
6. Bashing- Masahuro Kobayashi's 2005 film about: "a woman released after being kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq, Japanese aid worker Yuko (Fusako Urabe) faces a hostile reception back home in this drama based on true events. Feeling that she's shamed the country, strangers consider her a pariah. Even her family members, friends and former co-workers show no sympathy, greeting her with awkwardness or jeers. The film received a nomination for the Palme d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival."
7. The Power of Nightmares- (3 discs) British documentarian Adam Curtis's highly acclaimed '06 series about the relationship between fear in the media and politics. I had no idea this thing was out there on DVD. As respected as it was by so many people, one would have thought lefties would be clamoring to the hills about it.
8. A Boy and His Dog- The great L.Q. Jones directs this cult classic about the apocalypse.
9. Classe Tour Resquis- Claude Santet's 60's crime drama about two hoods bonding on the lam. I'm a sucker for most any French crime film.
10. Knightriders- Another one that seems to have been slipped onto DVD without much fanfare. This is the early 80's George Romero flick about a group of touring Renaissance fair jousters? Yes, it is true. Sounds like campy fun.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Top 5 List: The Death Game Genre

I suppose one could make top 5 lists of the best rock documentaries (with the release of "Cadillac Records" this week) or the top 5 Mickey Rourke performances, but how much fun would that be? And apologies to any fellow bloggers who actually have made any lists like that. I wanted to go in a different direction. After recently watching Robert Altman's much maligned (but not altogether bad) 70's sci-fi film "Quintet", the idea hit me. How many good- or at least highly enjoyable guilty pleasures- are out there that feature this style of medieval hunter and prey narrative? Or as I affectionately call them, the death game genre. So, since my previous Top 5 list counted down the best Nazi hunter films, here's another offbeat list of films for you. Feel free to add any I missed. After number one, in no preferential order:

1. Battle Royale- Kinji Fukasaku's modern cult classic gets better every time I watch it. From the exaggerated kill scenes to the menacing sexuality of Chiaki Kuriyama, (who Tarantino requisitioned for his own romp through Asian theatrics in "Kill Bill"), "Battle Royale" is best seen with a crowd, preferably after midnight and with a few beers. In Japan, society is rapidly becoming overcrowded, so the government's idea is to randomly choose one class of school children, deport them to a secluded island booby trapped with all types of grotesque land mines, and have them pick each other off one by one with various weapons handed out in nap sack. Ridiculous, yes, but wildly entertaining in the right frame of mind. "Battle Royale" came much later in the death game genre, but it's pretty much become the definitive example.

2. Tag: The Assassination Game- If you've seen this film, then I think there's an unwritten law that you have to like it. I watched this compulsively as a kid in the eighties, and it's long overdue for a re-watch now. A small group of kids on a college campus form a game where they use fake guns with darts to hunt and assassinate each other. The only problem is, one of the group takes his losing way too seriously and begins playing the game with a real gun. Not only did this film single handily kick start me and my friends' love for dart guns and sneaking around our dark houses during the summer, but it remains one of those unheralded gems from the 80's that is ripe for discovery. Why isn't this thing programmed for cult film festivals? I could see Harry Knowles championing this thing.

3. The Running Man- Another great 80's cult favorite with every one's favorite governor portraying a convict running for his life in an elaborately staged game show hosted by Richard Dawson in the year 2019! Too good to believe, I know. For those totally clueless about this, "The Running Man" was Tri Star's attempt to cash in on everything from WWF (since Jesse The Body Ventura has a role) to "American Gladiators"... yes the original show with bad ass guns that shoot tennis balls at 80 MPH. As a twelve year old kid, this thing rocked. I caught up with it a few years ago and, amazingly, it still holds up. Great one-liners from Arnold, a smoking hot Maria Conchita Alonso and some pretty great production designs.

4. Series 7: The Contenders-The weakest of this bunch, but still a solid and intriguing modern spin on the death game genre. Directed by Daniel Minahan, the film jumped on the early 00's bandwagon of the mockumentary and re-created his love for films like "Tag the Assassination Game" as a film crew follows 6 people chosen to take part in a contest of last man standing. Really more of a jagged, sardonic riff on the explosion of modern reality television, the film's bite comes in the character of Dawn (Brooke Smith, the girl held captive in the well in "Silence of the Lambs"), a pregnant contestant who goes all out. As far as dark comedies go, you can't ask for anything better than this, even if the characterizations are a bit lazy and the film runs out of steam well before its over.

5. Quintet- As mentioned above, "Quintet" isn't the debacle that many have claimed. The sets are cheesy, yes, but Newman is effective as a man struggling to understand the futuristic game he stumbles across in an ice-covered city full of ravaging dogs and homeless wanderers. Not quite a dystopian vision of the future, but a compelling one nonetheless. And, honestly is this film the genesis for the genre? For the life of me I can't think of any films before this late 70's film that deals with this subject matter. That alone should secure "Quintet" a firm place on any such list.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Future's So Bright...

A few things I've run up against in the last couple weeks that I can't wait to see or experience:

1. Naturally, this new little thing from Darren Aronofsky and someone named Mikey err Mickey Rourke?

2. While watching the very lackluster "24 Redemption", FOX broadcast a quick teaser to this new show debuting on A&E early next year. Patrick Swayze... mumbling a voice over about someone drowning, then picking up a gun and holster from the table? In the words of Peter Griffin from "Family Guy" when he finds an old pair of long johns with a butthole flap in the back for sale at a clothing store- "here's a check with my name on it.... fill in any amount you wish." I'm so there for whatever this show is.

3. From Slashfilm, someone named Christopher shared production photos of Michael Mann's '09 summer release, "Public Enemies", which looks at 30's era gangsters and stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

Some very early test screening reviews can also be found here if that's your thing. I personally avoid them since one runs the risk of rolling over spoilerific items. And honestly, how often can you trust these things?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

DVD Shout Out: Jar City

I can count the number of glacial-set police thrillers on one hand. There's Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Norwegian "Insomnia" and that film's own American remake starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams which relocates its main setting to Nightmute, Alaska... and is a pretty under appreciated Christopher Nolan project. Both films pit a slowly unraveling police investigator against his own conscience and daylight itself, respectively. If I'm leaving off any well crafted films from this sub-genre, please let me know.

Now along comes Baltasar Kormakur's "Jar City", a film that revels in the same exotic setting and spares no police procedural details. When a body of a man is found murdered, Inspector Erlunder (Ingvar Sigurossen) and his colleagues mobilize to find the killer. What they dig up (besides the eyes of Iceland's apparent favorite food dish, sheep's head) is a long tract of police corruption, dark family secrets and seething hatred. In essence, "Jar City" is not far removed from the Hollywood film noirs- or at least the ones that attempt to pin down the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles such as "L.A. Confidential" or "The Black Dahlia"- which is not a good film yet it acutely embellishes James Ellroy's sickening and corrupted slant on the city of angels. With every step of "Jar City", the screws are tightened and we begin to not want the film to go any further. And when it does reach its climax, the non-linear story lines gel in a brutally resonant way.

Mirror ideas abound. While searching for the killer, Erlunder is dealing with the drug addiction of his own daughter. Another character loses his young daughter in the opening of the film. While the murder and violent themes- including a missing brain and a really, really scary, large, bald headed escape con- are presented in straight forward images, the beautiful landscape setting around Iceland's capital, Reykjavic, is sublime and starkly contrasts everything else. "Jar City" almost supposes the idea that violence never happens here, but when it does, its repercussions are felt throughout the country. Likewise, its seemingly random (and singular) murder surfaces generations of hatred, guilt and genetic disease. It's a very interesting idea, executed with style and depth. Check this one out.