Friday, July 31, 2009

One Minute Greatness

Over the past few weeks, I've been entranced by these Levi Jeans commercials being shown at my local Cinemark theaters. I know that commercials have long been a breeding ground for popular filmmakers (Fincher, Gondry, Jonze and even Scorsese back in the day), and these spots tend to prove that rule. Directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose "Sin Nombre" is still floating around in art house theaters and has now become a must-see for me, these ads are breathtaking in the way they combine otherwordly images and spoken word. Spot 1, titled "America" is the best of the two, but both ads are real knockouts.

Spot #1

Spot #2

Here's hoping Fukunaga can carry forward the cinematic intensity of these commercials and make good in Hollywood.

And, as we all know, another corporation named Nike has been redefining the syntax of television advertising for so many years now, here's a few of my favorites:

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Resistance Is Futile

Ole Christian Madsen's "Flame and Citron" is a brooding trenchcoat and fedora'd examination of the blurry lines between right and wrong, guilt and innocence... and an especially powerful psychological case study of the tensions that engulfed whole countries during the German occupation of World War 2. Starring Mads Mikkelson and Thure Lindhardt as the aforementioned Flame and Citron (code names applied by the underground resistance group they take their orders from), Madsen's film wedges itself satisfactorily between Melville's "Army of Shadows" and Verhoeven's "Black Book", two of the most invigorating and intelligent films whose primary goal was to highlight the cloak and dagger escapades of the various Resistance groups during the great war- albeit with markedly different effects based on the time they were produced. Verhoeven is certainly aiming for a bit more entertainment value while Melville's 1969 work is a rigorous experiment in quiet deception and suffocating doom. Finding the right mixture between these extremes, "Flame and Citron" is an exciting and ultimately moving treatise on these two uniquely dedicated- and historically accurate- Danish assassins.

Initially throwing the viewer into an indiscernible chain of events where Flame and Citron are nonchalantly knocking on doors and exterminating people, focus and motivation soon eclipse their seemingly random acts. Outside of their clinically precise assassinations, back story and development gradually gives purpose to both men. Citron (Mikkelsen) has a family, but his honor and sense of duty has slowly eroded that relationship. Flame (Lindhardt), the more three dimensional of the pair, is given contextual and deep seated hatred for his actions against the encroaching German army and SS squad. Yet the film's real crowning achievement (besides its expertly staged action sequences and sense of forbodement) is the dangerous ways it maps out the various deceptions, betrayals and triple crosses. What's a good Resistance film without the idea of any single person being the one who rats on someone else? In "Flame and Citron", the walls slowly begin to collapse on the devoted duo when the directions of their superiors begins to look like personal retribution rather than straightforward homeland security. As the tensions rise, Mikkelsen and Lindhardt do an excellent job of etching the fear on their face. We want these guys to survive, but history- and the reptilian nature of the underground movement- are certainly running against them.

The most lasting effect of "Flame and Citron" is not in the action itself, but in the closing moments. Like the best films based on actual events, "Flame and Citron" provides us with text that deepens and extends the supposed fictional image into reality. For some reason, the end notes on Ketty (Stine Stengade), the love interest of Flame, and the belated recognition bestowed upon Flame and Citron by the U.S. government, resonate more poignantly than in other films of this nature. Also, the use of a voice-over motif that doesn't come into clarity until the final few minutes strikes a deep echo about the way we process and remember harrowing events. In a film that mostly concerns itself with instantaneous satisfaction through bloodletting, "Flame and Citron" is ultimately a moving examination of the life long battle scars that firmly attach themselves with no relief in sight.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Art House Round Up


Duncan Jones' "Moon" belongs in that category of heady independent science fiction films (both versions of "Solaris", "Sunshine") that emphasizes ideas above all else. Tastefully rendered in minimal camera selections (no hand-held, composed medium shots, efficient editing), "Moon" features a great performance from Sam Rockwell as an astronaut working on the moon for the Lunar corporation... a company that's developed energy from harnessing sunlight on the far side of the moon. As his 3 year contract comes to a close, his mind begins to slip. Needless to say, writer/director Jones keeps everything controlled tightly. There are no pseudo alien things at play here. In fact, part of the film's magnificent charm is its ability to keep the tension intact after the 'big reveal' in the first 30 minutes. More and more interesting ideas begin to tumble like dominoes. All in all, "Moon" is a surprisingly effective debut from a filmmaker with loads of potential.

Summer Hours

My affinity for Olivier Assayas notwithstanding, "Summer Hours" would be a terrific film without his presence since its ensemble acting is gentle and pitch perfect. Situated somewhere between domestic French talkie and a cunning delineation of the conflicts between three generations of one family, Assayas had jettisoned the herky-jerky kinetic ism of his previous films and slowed things down with careful tracking shots and sublime editing (which, even in his frenetic work, was always calculated). After the mother in a large, artistically inclined family dies, the burden of her estate falls on her three children, played by Charles Berlinger, Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Rennier. Juggling their own modern lives while wading into the antiquated waters of their families past, "Summer Hours" is a great companion piece to Assayas' "Late August, Early September"... both are films that explicitly and immediately cause one to care for these characters and the subtle decisions they make. Just watch the community that flows through one scene when Binoche confesses her impending marriage or the final moments where granddaughter Sylvie (Alice Lencquesaing) ruminates on the days spent playing around her grandmother's house. And even though Assayas infuses every frame with longing and mortality, "Summer Hours" is far from a brooding or unpleasant experience. It perfectly seems to capture that awe-inspiring feeling that we all face- dealing with the past and smiling at the future we've built for ourselves through our current family and friends.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Mr. Bernstein Meme

In a weird attempt to meld sociology, memory and cinematic pleasures, I've decided to start this meme based on a great post by Jeffrey Wells at his essential blog Hollywood Elsewhere. Remember that great monologue in Citizen Kane by actor Everett Sloan?

"You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in, and on it was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."

I do have a similar story that I'll share later in this post, and I ask all of you to join me. The rules:

1. Your memory can be anything that lingers with you today. First love. Cathartic experience in a movie theater. Close encounters with death, chance, fate or luck. There are no limits. Delve deep! Just please be honest about them.
2. Video clips, pictures.. whatever.. again.... delve deep.
3. Choose five bloggers to tag and spread the wealth.
4. Link back to this blog.

The five I'd most like to hear from:

1. Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Sam at The Listening Ear
3. Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre
4. Chris at his blog
5. Caitlin at 1416 and Counting

My memory:

In March of 2002, a buddy and I road tripped from Dallas to skiing in New Mexico. On a whim, we decided to drive onto Vegas. We took the scenic route in, stopping at the Hoover Dam. It was early in the morning and cold outside, so not many people were lingering around. I was looking over the railing, kinda lost in thought, when I heard someone next to me. I looked up and about 10 feet away was a Middle Eastern girl standing looking over the rail as well, wearing the full traditional Islamic dress and a veil wrapped just around her neck with her face exposed. Remember, this is March 2002. She looked over at me and, my god, this girl was beautiful. The take your breath away kinda natural beauty.... searing green eyes... 19 or 20 years old. She looked down for a second as if she was afraid of what my glance meant. Then she looked back up and saw the (probably) ga-ga look in my eyes (and not the prevalent scowl she probably always received) and smiled at me. I don't even remember what gesture I returned. I just remember being bowled over by her beauty. Then, she turned, went back to her family, hopped in a car and drove off. Honestly, if I'd said something to her... anything at all... it probably would not have amounted to much more than passer-by friendliness, but to this day I wonder about it. I wonder where she is. I know exactly how Mr. Bernstein feels.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Memoriam

I tend to steer away from these types of things since so many others fill the void, but as a student of journalism, I owe Mr. Cronkite this small tribute on here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Regional Review: The Whole Shootin' Match

The story of Eagle Pennell is a truly tragic one, yet we can always find beauty and redemption in the archived work of a filmmaker (justly) coming to light. After IFC snuck Pennell's 1984 film "Last Night At the Alamo" into their lackluster rotation a few months back, I feel privileged to have seen two Eagle films now. His second film, "The Whole Shootin Match", released in 1978, has been credited as the film that encouraged Robert Redford to launch the Sundance Film Festival. And I can't imagine a better film to watch on a hot July Texas night when it's still 95 degrees at 11pm.

Like most of his characters, Lloyd (Lou Perryman) and Frank (Sonny Carl Davis) are decent southern boys constantly trying to carve a niche for themselves amongst their nights of chasing women and drinking. In "The Whole Shootin' Match", Lloyd and Sonny fare much better than the layabouts in "Last Night At the Alamo", though to be fair, that film is strictly about one night in the life of a closing Houston bar and its denizens. Lloyd is an especially inventive guy, continually creating things out of PVC pipe and metal in his backyard. Yet in his customary fatalistic world-view, Pennell chooses to end this stroke of good luck as a corporate fast-one. The good 'ol boys are taken for a ride and lose out on their patent for a mop by a shady downtown Austin businessman who blinds the guys with a wad of quick cash- cash that Sonny quickly wastes on a suit and convertible. While a small part of the film documents the duo's brave attempts to scratch out a living on the fringes of society, the real gist of the film is their lazy interaction with each other and the women in Sonny's life. While this aspect of the film is highly entertaining and Pennell scribbles out some intently hilarious conversations between these two slow-drawl guys, "The Whole Shootin' Match" is (to me) a much more valuable commodity for its anthropological take on Texas in the mid 70's.

Filmed in and around Austin, Pennell frames a bit of his film in the concrete jungle of downtown Austin (as the previously mentioned scene where the guys sell their idea and get taken) but the majority of its setting is the hinterlands of south central Texas. Largely anonymous dirt roads, backyards and darkened highways, Pennell does evoke a serene beauty during the film's final images of the guys wandering in the clustered hills west of Austin. The clash between good 'ol boy nature and hippie central (Austin, well noted, is known as the most liberal city in Texas) is touched on as well during a scene where the guys attempt to kickstart a new polyuerthane business on a unique house in the Austin hills. Whether he means to or not, Pennell conveys alot about the clash of personalities in his films. More sure of himself in the hazy interactions between drinking buddies than fully realized relationships, "The Whole Shootin Match" does give ample screentime to Sonny's wife (a wonderful Doris Hargrave) and her slow attraction to Sonny's cousin (Eric Henshaw) in scenes that come off funny and real. The act of giving a bicycle to Sonny's young son squeezes alot of mileage out of its simple plot point. Pennell condenses alot of personality in conversations and "The Whole Shootin' Match" is a film full of them.

A poignant footnote to my viewing of "The Whole Shootin' Match" was certainly overshadowed by the news of actor Lou Perryman's death just a month or so after this film's DVD release and the virtual excitement being stirred by Pennell's maverick filmmaker status. Watching the scenes towards the end of "The Whole Shootin Match" as Lloyd and Frank dutifully search for lost gold in the hills, yet another unfulfilled get-rich-quick scheme in their never-resting-minds, I kept coming back to the image above as Lou rests on the downslope of a hill with a large tree blotting out the sky behind him. If ever there was a more glorious image of a man at peace with nature, this is it. Again, whether he meant to or not, Pennell and alter-ego Lou Perryman delve into the beauty of the Texas lanscape with a singular feeling for what makes this great state so breathtaking at times.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #24

It's been a while since I've given your inquiring minds a look at my queue. Here we go:

1. Mad Dog Morgan- 70's Dennis Hopper film that doesn't sound too distinctive. MGM HD channel played this last month and I missed it. Hopper stars in a plot described as such: "ruthless bounty hunter scour Australia's harsh outback for infamous outlaw Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper) in this thriller based on the life of the Irishman who immigrated during the 1800s gold rush. Morgan is caught for stealing horses and endures years of torture behind bars. He continues his outlaw ways after his release, and soon he's wanted … dead or alive." Early 70's coked-up Hopper in a western? I'm there.
2. The Whistle Blower- Found this one while scouring that lovable feature in Netflix where members can create lists. Starring Michael Caine, it involves spy stuff and skulduggery. Made in the late 80's, this very well may be a made-for-TV movie, but Caine rarely disappoints. Plus, it's spy stuff!
3. Liliom- On going look at every Fritz Lang film I can. There'll be a humongous post in the future as I track down every available film.
4. F.I.S.T.- Sylvester Stallone as a labor leader? Sounds like gritty 70's fun.
5. Manhunter- With all my gushing over Michael Mann's latest, I decided to go back and re-watch this one. I've only seen this twice for some reason. I vividly remember a scene in a darkened kitchen with Tom Noonan. I look forward to re-discovering this one.
6. Before I Forget- Jacque Nolot writes, stars and directs in this French film from 2008 that has more than its share of supporters.
7. Dov'e le Liberte?- I don't know when they were released on DVD, but two of Roberto Rosselini's later pictures popped up as a recommendation recently. "Escape By Night" was a terrific film about three escaped POW's seeking refuge in an Italian town. "Dov'e le Liberte": "After serving a two-decade sentence for murdering his wife's lover, barber Salvatore (Totò) gets out of prison early for good behavior. But he soon finds that the outside world has changed so much that prison starts to look appealing by comparison. Before long, Salvatore starts hatching a plan to bust back into the slammer in this humor-filled dramatic gem from Italian master director Roberto Rossellini." A definite must see.
8. Torn Curtain- Hitchcock. Newman. Spy stuff. Say no more.
9. Cypher- Whatever happened to director Vincent Natali? After the smash cult success of "Cube"in 1998, he sorta fell off the map. IMDB shows several projects in development, though. This one, from 2005, stars Jeremy Northam involved in some sci-fi corporate espionage.
10. Stranded- Documentary about the Uruguayan rugby team who crash landed in the Andes and resorted to some, um, awful things to stay alive.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Few Thoughts On "Public Enemies"

Emerged from the theater shaken and invigorated from the latest display of machoism from one of the finest directors working today. From start to finish, this thing is a masterpiece. Just when I'd start to settle down in my seat, the subtle tension of its cat and mouse game would be punctuated by swift, abrasive pounds of machine gunfire and beautifully choreographed set-pieces. The connection created between Depp and Coltillard is heartfelt and poignant... and that final scene between her and Winstead (Stephen Lang) is pitch-perfect. And, I haven't seen a film this good looking since... well "Miami Vice". This is a film that deserves to be seen through a digital projector. The images are so crisp, certain moments were awe-inspiring. The gold statues in the background of one bank.... the texture on the wall when Cotillard talks on the phone with Depp.... the warm interior hues of gold and green. Simply stunning. I'll stop now. I don't know if I'll see a better film this year.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Michael Mann: The Logistics of Action

The following post is a contribution to the excellent Michael Mann blog-a-thon going on at Radiator Heaven.

Even though director Michael Mann has embraced the vagaries of technology with wonderful and illuminating results, it's nice to see that he hasn't succumbed to the post-modern style of editing and framing the muscular portions of his films; i.e. all those discombobulated, half-a-second-long shots that comprise so many action scenes today and represent a step backwards for concise and logical storytelling. I can always tell when a film plans to go down this wretched path. The opening car chase scene in "Quantum Of Solace" for example.... a car chase that sprays across the screen, full of shiny images, wincing faces, loud noises and a complete lack of spatial reference. I could feel myself slumping down lower in my seat after 90 seconds, wondering how I would ever make it through a film so spliced and diced within an inch of its life. If this is the continuing procession for all action films for the next ten years, then count me out.

And then there's Michael Mann and his 1995 masterpiece, "Heat". Featuring the greatest bank heist created on film so far (and a scenario that would frightfully play itself out in real life one year later), not only is it an exhilarating example of adrenaline film making, but it stands as my personal watermark for how every action film should be conceived.

It stands by two rules: 1. Allow the viewer to understand the setting. What makes this shoot-out in "Heat" so bracing is it's placement of good guy and bad guy. Watching it, we understand exactly where everyone is in relation to the buildings and people around them.

Through his use of over-the-shoulder tracking shots and cleanly developed medium shots, the image isn't distorted and we're allowed to see from behind the various shooters, giving us a panoramic view of the carnage being unleashed on poor downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when Val Kilmer runs up behind a car and begins to unload on the crowd of police cars ahead of him. As he ducks to reload, Mann's camera patiently waits with him as he reloads and then re-emerges. The setting fits perfectly with the action.

2. Give the viewer a spatial sense of how the image effects the characters. If the first rule isn't in place, then the characters feelings, actions and placement must be transferred through editing. Thinking of the old trick of editing- if one were to cut to the face of a woman expressionless, then to a bright summer sky, then back to her face, the viewer may infer that she's happy to be taking in such a sunny visage. Compare the same sequence of shots with a black, ominous sky and our preconceptions may be vastly different for this woman. The same applies here. If an action scene is cut into a nauseating array of shiny images, loud noises and confusing design, then the viewer can become distressed and forced to accept the set-piece as something happening without any real foundation of cause and effect. In "Heat", every action has a counter-action and the viewer understands exactly where these actions come from. As Neil McCauley and his gang try to make their escape in their car, the bullets coming from outside:

Have disastrous (and logical) repercussions inside:

But Mann's attention to physical detail doesn't belong at just the halfway point. "Heat's" conclusion, filmed in an airport storage yard at night time, probably posed an equally difficult challenge. Instead of morphing into a shoot-em-up, the finale is full of quiet tension as the epic cat and mouse chase between DeNiro and Pacino ends with the same lucid intelligence that it started with.

The demise of DeNiro is told through light, sound, camera placement and viewer recollection. There's a very important reason Mann gives us images of planes coming and going and those runway lights brightening the area. For a thief who lives his life through mechanical diligence, its a fitting way to go out. And for Mann, it's not hard to see a bit of the obsessive concern that plagues all of his criminal anti-heroes. Whether its maneuvering through the locks of a safe, diverting their violent paths for the soft touch of a woman or slugging it out with heavy artillery, I'm just glad I can savor the clean images that tell every story. Can't every action film take place in 1995 before the slice and dice method became predominant?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

70's Bonanza: Mitchum X 2

From 1973 to 1975, Robert Mitchum lived and breathed in the world of pulp. In 1973, there was "The Friends of Eddie Coyle". The next year... Sydney Pollack's "The Yakuza". Then in 1975, "Farewell, My Lovely", the third film to be based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name. Maybe it was Mitchum's sad-sack, world weary face that naturally lent itself to the roles of various hoods, stoolies and tired detectives. Whatever the reason for such a powerhouse one-two-three punch, I'm just glad they exist.

The absolute best of the bunch- Peter Yates' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle"- has been newly released on DVD for the first time by Criterion, providing movie enthusiasts such as myself the opportunity to take in a (somewhat) forgotten masterpiece. A low key and almost clinical peek at the underbelly of the Boston underworld, Yates' film virtually renders Mitchum (the titular Eddie) as a secondary character, caught up in his own desperation to stay out of jail at 50 years old and give up his friends and associates involved in some heavy stuff. It's a bold move, but "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" should be seen as a sprawling examination of the mechanics of crime rather than an actual character study. Mitchum is the big name, but the smaller roles are what really flesh out "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" as a dynamic portrait of this particularly dangerous sect of people. Littered with familiar character actor faces (Alex Rocco, Joe Santos, James Tolkan, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats), Yates draws great tension out of every scene. Three bank robberies, a police stake-out in a parking lot, and the final night on the town for Eddie Coyle are supplemented with a filmmaking style that's simple and economic. And this is a film that understands the power of silences. Just watch the progression of shots as Jackie Brown (Keats) waits in a parking lot or the cryptic conversation between Dillon (Peter Boyle) and cop (Jordan) that basically says everything without saying anything.

But among this sordid world, there's still Robert Mitchum. He tells you everything you need to know in the opening scene as he describes how he got his nickname of "Fingers" in a breathless monologue. It's a quiet performance that reeks of regret and hard-worn bad luck. And when Mitchum talks or looks into the eyes of the Jordan's slick cop, deciding whether to rat or not, his eyes tell us the whole story. The benefit of time is certainly on his side as an actor.

A little less successful than "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" but intriguing nonetheless is Dick Richard's "Farewell My Lovely" (1975). Desperately wanting to mine the same cinematic and critical gold as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" a few years earlier, this third installment of the great Hammett novel has the artificiality of 40's noir but not the real gusto. As Philip Marlowe, Mitchum is highly watchable, spouting the ironic lines of his weary detective role with half amused energy. The story itself- something about a missing chorus girl and the ties of one powerful family to the very heart of corruption in Los Angeles- were surely monumental in their day, but by 1975 this slick decor had run its course. Part of the minor failure of "Farewell My Lovely" can be found in the abrupt shift film noirs took during the 70's. If "Chinatown" closed the book on mimicking the old style, then "Point Blank", "The Long Goodbye" and "Night Moves" were definitive indicators of the new prevailing winds.... kinetic, self-reflexive and concerned with modern attitudes clashing against old manners. Regardless, "Farewell My Lovely" centers on the bulky shoulders of Mitchum as he trudges across the city at night and slowly segues from one predicament to another. What else do we expect from Philip Marlowe? Yet only Mitchum could probably pull off the meaningful way in which he tosses a baseball back to a little boy whose father won't be coming home. Whether he's playing the stoolie or the good guy, Mitchum has that unique way of making one believe in his actions.