Sunday, June 21, 2009

Top 5 List: Kooky Father's Day Stories

1. National Lampoons Vacation- As Clark Griswald, Chevy Chase is probably the most fantastically realized father in film history. Full of child-like wonder and unstoppable drive for his family to simply have fun, Chase also portrays him as a well-meaning (yet bumbling) person who exudes goodness. In "National Lampoons Vacation", it all started. The nightmare of cross-country travel... the resonantly funny situations... and the American summer vacation dream that ends with a felony. The laughs only continued to grow in the Griswald's travels to Europe and then maneuvering through the holidays- and I won't mention Vegas, which is painful- and Chevy Chase embodies middle class fatherhood with glee each time.

2. He got Game- Certainly, a more screwed up look at fatherhood then the previous entry, but Spike Lee's pseudo basketball movie is also an extraordinarily moving examination of the walls that build up between father and son. Ray Allen has been maligned for his poor performance here, but I found his un-actorly methods quite refreshing. As a jailbird father released in the hopes of getting his top prospect son to sign with the warden's Alma Mata, Denzel Washington hams it up a bit, yet the final showdown between father and son on the basketball court is one of Spike Lee's most inventive narrative devices- a basketball game that reverberates with moral and cosmic weight. It's a masterstroke. Then comes the moment when a basketball seems to explode through time and space. The tenuous bonds between father and son have never seemed so palpable.

3. The Adventures of Sebastian Cole- Here's a different type of relationship between father and son... and a wonderfully overlooked late 90's film that deserves to be seen. Directed by Tod Williams ("The Door In the Floor") and starring a young Adrian Grenier, the film takes place in the late 80's and perfectly nails its time and place. Confused, dealing with young love, and some unique family circumstances, "The Adventures of Sebastain Cole" belongs among the ranks of "Kicking and Screaming", "Adventureland" and "The Beautiful Girls"... films that place young adults amidst the very definitive points in their lives and treats them with respect. As Sebastian's father, actor-director Clark Gregg plays out his unique role with satisfying humanity. What could've been a soap opera trick propels young Sebastian into a well-adjusted adult ready to face the tumultuous world.

4. Field of Dreams- C'mon. Seriously. If you don't choke up a little bit when Costner asks his father "you wanna play catch?" then you don't have a heart. Or love baseball to its core. Or you never spent an afternoon playing catch when you were a kid. Though it takes its solemn time actually getting to that point, Alden's monumental baseball reverie is really about a son making amends with his father. Stunningly simple filmmaking with real heart. No matter how many times I watch this thing, I still find that lump in my throat growing the second Burt Lancaster steps up to save Costner's choking daughter.

5. Mr. Mom- Remember when Michael Keaton could do no wrong? I LOVED this movie when I was younger and it still gets me today. Sure, the whole thing has been derided for its sitcom style comedy, but Keaton jumps into every scene with such enthusiasm and the idea of a father learning to understand the day-to-day rhythms of his household really work.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Taking Of Pelham 123

The rising tide of emotion over Tony Scott's remake of Joseph Sargent's "The Taking Of Pelham 123" is reaching the climactic cry of "why"? There are its admirers and certainly its detractors (plus more harsh words). As an unabashed Tony Scott fan, I'll certainly give it a look, aware of its tricked up cinematography and amplified square off between a goateed, menacing John Travolta and a subdued Denzel Washington. This is not the original... a film which deserves its rightful place in 70's cinema as a hard-edged, no nonsense hostage film that looks even trendier today than I'm sure the grit and grime of 1970's New York did upon initial release.

For anyone who says director Joseph Sargent provided a "workmanlike" effort on "The Taking of Pelham 123" needs to look a little closer. From the opening exterior shots of the hostage-takers silently assembling in the subway station to that sublime and impeccably humorous final freeze frame, Sargent's film is wrapped in auterist moments. Take also the first (and last) images of criminal ringleader Robert Shaw, introduced through tapping, impatient feet in a subway station and ending on a self destructive tap of the shoes on the underground electric track. With the exception of the tracking shot that follows a cat into a dark doorway, up to a pair of shoes, and eventually to the half-hidden face of Orson Welles in Carol Reed's "The Third Man" as he picks up the cat, I can't think of a more inventive introduction to a main character through an almost throwaway moment. Great stuff. And back to Shaw himself. As the good guy transit detective, Walter Matthau does his lumbering best to imbue every scene with the world-weary nonchalance that made him famous, and it's a harmonious collision when he and Shaw finally begin communicating through the train's radio. Decisive, intelligent, well organized and brutally efficient, Shaw creates a purely evil bad guy out of (basically) thin air. It's always the icy, quiet person who embarks on the killing rampage, and Shaw embodies Mr. Blue as a man who never raises his voice but gets exactly what he wants. It's an understated performance, but one that grows on you with repeat viewings. Here's a well-drawn villain because we understand everything has been planned down to the inch. With preparation like that, it's all tone of voice and steely gaze and Shaw carries it out with perfection.

Then there's the tension generated by the film. There's little action- one car chase that ends just as quickly as it begins and sporadic gun fire- yet "The Taking Of Pelham 123" carves its place in the niche of 70's cinema alongside other thrillers (paranoid or otherwise) that understands atmosphere, acting, pacing and dialogue are the keys to success. With their limited screen time, Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Dick O' Neill resonate long after their supporting turns as guys trapped on both sides of the hostage crisis. And then there's that final scene.... intriguing because we don't expect Sargent and screenwriter Peter Stone to fully evolve the story beyond the actual titular action. But they do. And it lands on that cat-like grin of Walter Matthau as his long day comes to an end. With that, "The Taking Of Pelham 123" immediately re-assesses itself as a study of good overpowering evil. In it's small way, New York City is saved again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Produced and Abandoned: Part 2

Ten more titles that deserve a release on Region 1 DVD:

1. The Keep (1983)- The only Michael Mann not readily available. This aired on Bravo or TBS a looong time ago and I missed dubbing it onto a shoddy VHS tape (or maybe I did and the VHS tape broke!). The word of mouth has been lukewarm, but damn it, hiding any Michael Mann from the eyes of the mainstream is a crime.
2. Second Sight (1989)- Does anyone besides me remember this movie? John Larroquette as a detective who enlists the help of psychic Bronson Pinchot to find a missing person? Probably supreme self indulgence on my part (who really wants to see this?), but I loved this movie when I was younger.
3. A Brighter Summer Day (1991)- With Taiwanese director Edward Yang passing a couple years ago, I think it's definitely time larger audiences get a glimpse of this (supposed) towering achievement. Art house fans label this the holy grail, as there's several versions floating around out there, and a supposed 4 hour cut that made the rounds at festivals. While we're at it, how about a proper release of "Taipai Story" as well?
4. Freebie and the Bean (1975)- My dad and other older friends rave about this film. It pops up occasionally on TV, but a DVD look is long overdue.
5. That Cold Day In the Park (1969)- Prolific output does tend to raise the Not on DVD quotient, and Robert Altman certainly fits the bill. Even though "Brewster McLoud" dots alot of these lists (seen it, wasn't too impressed), this title has always eluded me.
6. The Last Movie (1971)- Bat shit, coked-up Dennis Hopper is always kinda good. And bat-shit, coked-up Dennis Hopper as director is even crazier. While I can't always claim this is a good movie, there are some interesting ideas and Hopper does his best to contribute to the bloated, independent feeling of out-there 70's cinema. Like some of Wim Wenders, "The Last Movie" is a self-reflexive look at filmmaking-as-apocalypse, and I'd love to see the reaction this film gets on wide release in region 1.

And now, a few titles suggested from the United Provinces of Ivanlandia blog

7. The Devils (1971)- Ken Russell's much sought after film about nuns and, well devils, is getting some talk around the blogosphere as it recently turned up on region 2 DVD. With other Russell BBC films making their DVD splash earlier this year, here's hoping "The Devils" isn't far behind.
8. Run of the Arrow (1957)- We always need Sam Fuller on DVD.
9. The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)- Honestly, I had to look this one up. You learn something new everyday. 1971's Oscar winner for best documentary is called "a visually stunning look into the vast world of insects".
10. The Island (1980)- No, not the marginally entertaining Michael bay flick with (yum) Scarlett Johansson, but Michael Ritchie's (hugely under appreciated) violent pirates movie starring Michael Caine. I'm there.

And a few quick notes. Thanks to readers of the blog, looks like I'll be seeing two films from my previous post including "Wanda Nevada" and "The Outfit". Thanks!

Secondly, TCM is showing some phenomenal films this much, and in late June, they'll be showing Lumet's "The Deadly Affair" which I've been grasping to see for years as well as other 70's not on DVD films such as "The Carey Treatment". Again, you gotta love TCM.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Con Game and the New Cool

In the most recent copy of "Film Comment", writer Phillip Lopate examines the abilities of film-goers (but more specifically, the film critic) to reverse their initial opinion of a given movie. We all have those moments. I can remember the first time I saw "Boogie Nights" and it left a general "meh" feeling over me. Some initial thoughts jotted down for others to read was disparaging.... something about a Scorsese knock-off. Then, after witnessing the magisterial brilliance of "Magnolia" two years later, I went back and re-watched "Boogie Nights" and the cribs from other movies didn't feel so blinding. There's the stunning Little Bill long-shot... the sharp flashes of emotion that ring through.... the Sister Christian scene which still builds up incredible tension when viewed today... P.T. Anderson was simply working on a different level than everyone else at the time and that lost me a bit. Now, after recently watching Rian Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom", I felt extremely tempted to go back and watch his debut film, "Brick", and give it a second chance. His sophomore film is a con film, yes. It's hard to take anything seriously because you're searching for the elusive lie behind the images. Yet, "The Brothers Bloom" is such a well-crafted film, entertaining (and yet idiosyncratic) in every respect and visually sumptuous that I feel like I missed something in his first film. Any filmmaker with this much talent to burn deserves a second chance.

Starring Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody as grifting brothers who choose the eccentric but wealthy mark played by Rachel Weisz, "The Brothers Bloom" establishes itself right away as another entry in the cinema of "New Cool" as I call it. Director Wes Anderson being the godfather of this movement, of course, Johnson employs some of the same stylish techniques (whip pans, cutesy acoustic music, vibrant color schemes) but creates characters and a story that feel all their own. Perhaps too whimsical for some, I absolutely loved the way Johnson films Brody and Weisz falling in love through a simple dolly tracking shot as they walk the streets of Prague, disappear behind a row of stone pillars, and re-emerge holding hands. Self conscious and definitely aware of its coolness, "The Brothers Bloom" doesn't beat one over the head with it though. Keeping the sweetness intact between child-like Weisz and impressionable Brody as the story (and con-game) grows convoluted is the single masterstroke of Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom". Their relationship isn't a con, and that makes the whole thing work. Also, as in "Brick", Johnson keeps the eye entertained by a shifting pastiche of costumes and time, as if he's ingested more film noirs, Hollywood musicals and David Mamet plays than Quentin Tarantino. While the black suits and shades worn by the brothers remains consistent throughout, there's a great scene towards the beginning of the film where we think the action is happening in some burlesque in 1920's Chicago, and then the brothers emerge in broad daylight on a graffiti-filled rooftop overlooking a very modern downtown. Again, some of the images in this film are breathtaking. But if there's one fault to be had, it's more of my own pre-conceived disappointment than the film itself. I kept waiting for that one great set-piece that never comes. Most con films rely on this, and "The Brothers Bloom" zips by so fast from con to con, that we barely have time to register a point or outcome. Regardless, Johnson's intention may be more on the relationship between Brody and Weisz and Ruffalo than anything else. In the way "Brick" was a high school tale told through the prismatic notion of a hardboiled film noir, "The Brothers Bloom" could be a family drama played out against the shifting diversions of the grifter's tale. Johnson seems to relish telling small stories against the fabricated backdrop of embedded narrative styles. And with "The Brothers Bloom" he does this magically.

So, this leads me back to "Brick", Johnson's 2006 debut starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as a high school kid caught up with some seedy 'gangsters'. Perhaps it was the hype. Perhaps it was the stilted, manufactured dialogue. I went into this one with some anticipation, and came out supremely underwhelmed. Watching it again today with some perspective, I realized just how wrong I was. Carefully composed as if every shot where framed within an inch of its life... that crazy good scene in the parking lot... the lovingly rendered and modernized way Johnson has taken the film noir and turned it completely inside out... how did I possibly miss this upon first viewing? At least I now understand the error of my ways. Thankfully, the movies do exist with revisionist history. And, if you haven't seen either film, I urge you to do so (one on DVD and the other currently in release). I suspect that Rian Johnson will be a name I echo many times around these parts.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Eating Disorders

Abdel Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain" belongs to that rare sub-genre of international cinema that patiently observes a way of life with unwavering naturalism and empathy. While more than two hours of this 153 minute movie concerns itself with the various interactions and tensions that arise over the dinner table with an immigrant family living in France, it's never boring and certainly never wears out its welcome. And when a simple crime surfaces in the final ten minutes, it's not only a crushing revelation to the family patriarch Slimane (a bottom-feeding but very humble character), but its treated by director Kechiche as if the very fabric of time and space has been ripped apart in a quiet explosion. Watching it, I was consumed by anger... disturbed by the seemingly passive manner of laughter by the young criminals, and ultimately overtaken by compassion for Slimane (Habib Boufares). Like the movies of the Dardennes brothers (or, most pointedly, De Sica's classic "The Bicycle Thief"), "The Secret of the Grain" exposes us to the tenuous underbelly of life where a minor inconvenience for us registers as an earth-shattering assault on the lower class 'others'.
But, I'm allowing my praise to get ahead of me here. Set in modern day Southern France, Slimane is the central figure to a large family. Quickly after losing his job though, he embarks on refurbishing a boat and opening a couscous restaurant. We follow Slimane and are slowly introduced to his large family (over Sunday dinner, of course) where the camera restlessly conveys the passion, trust and (at times) dissolution of the various family members. Slimane is divorced, occasionally seeing his overbearing daughter but preferring the company of his girlfriend and her daughter Rym (a miraculous Hafsia Herzi). Slimane is subdued, introverted and Rym dotes on him like the father she never had. It's their relationship that soon overshadows everything else in the film. They dress up and attempt to gain the proper licenses and permits to open the restaurant, yet only encounter the nastiness of that thing we call bureaucracy. Then, through a stroke of business ingenuity, Slimane prepares a party for big spenders and city officials to gain support and backing for his idea. But, trouble arises and Kechiche strings out the final dinner party to almost unbearable proportions as a small mistake soon envelops the whole family and Slimane especially.

As previously mentioned, "The Secret of the Grain" builds up strong camaraderie between the viewer and its characters. While some may find Kechiche's filmmaking style pretentious- such as the scene where Slimane's daughter in law suspects her husband is cheating on her and she explodes on Slimane in a scene that rolls on for several minutes in an exhaustive array of screams and tears or the final belly dancing scene- for me it all made sense. I was immediately drawn into this world... its messiness.... its complete abandonment of usual character development... it all felt like the best of John Cassavates where we watch people dissolve and bounce off each other through laughter and talk. It may not be a defining idea, but "The Secret of the Grain" hits all the right notes. And the food looks incredible.