Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Letters From A Dead Man

Apocalypse films have an inherent attitude and tone. But when it comes from Russia, the apocalypse film is especially cerebral. This is certainly the case with Konstantin Lopushanshky's "Letters From A Dead Man", the type of film that seems to have borrowed Tarkovsky's visual scheme and Nabokov's ideas. Filmed in a yellow-tinged sepia tone, "Letters From A Dead Man" is oppressive in every way possible... and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

Released in 1985, "Letters From A Dead Man" gains its title from the lonely voiceover given by the film's main character, a professor forced to live underground with a handful of others in the cellars beneath their city. Death hangs over every corner. Suicides are rampant and the professor has to watch his wife slowly wither away and die. People can go outside, but only in haz mat suits and they're subject to curfew laws. Yet "Letters From A Dead Man" is lightyears away from other post apocalypse films. There's no violence from bands of roving gangs. Lopushanshky's goal is more intelligent, revealing a post-world tied up in confused bearuracracy as the remaining government apparatus is forcing every healthy individual into the main underground living quarters. Only those with "passes" may enter. The professor discovers a make-shift orphanage with seven unhealthy children, and "Letters From A Dead Man" quietly shifts from pessimistic survival mode to obliquely moving in the final moments.

Owing a huge debt to Tarkovsky's "Stalker", Lopushanshky still manages to create a unique universe. Ideas about the place of literature and religion are the main topics of conversation. And the slow monologue that details the accidental destruction of the world is both chilling in its reality and depressing that it could happen so easily. "Letters From A Dead Man" is not an easy sit, but if one is looking for a varied alternative to other apocalypse films, this is it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Produced and Abandoned Part 7

Ten more titles deserving of a Region 1 DVD release:

1. Obsession (1976)- Brian DePalma's modern reworking of "Vertigo" is a lush, overtly melodramatic homage that often gets overlooked among his films. There is an Australian release of this film, yet its barely shown on TV and the rumored Criterion release is still forthcoming.
2. The Touch (1971)- Ingmar Bergman's very hard to find early 70's film about an American archaeologist (Elliot Gould) entering an affair with a housewife (Bergman muse Bibi Anderson). Ironically, there are several Gould films from the 70's that are hard to find- including "Move" and "Getting Straight"- but what makes this title even more curious is the filmmaking pedigree of Swedish master Bergman. It's one of the few not available.
3. Savage Is Loose (1974)- The second directorial outing from actor George C. Scott, this described chamber drama about a family stuck on a remote island, sounds intriguing. VHS copies go for big bucks.
4. The Nickel Ride (1974)- Written about here, this small scaled, moody film deserves its resurrection. I think it'll find a huge audience.
5. Hell Night (1981)- Linda Blair slasher flick about four teens spending the night with something wicked this way comes. Anchor Bay released a copy of this film (from a bad VHS print apparently) in the early 00's, but its been OOP since.
6. Le Garcu (1995)-French filmmaker Maurice Pialet has been vastly under-represented on DVD. His 1991 film "Van Gogh" is a masterpiece. One of his earlier efforts, "L' Enfance Nue", was just released on DVD two weeks ago so maybe there's hope yet. "Le Garcu", his last film, was regarded by critic Andrew Sarris as one of the very best films of that year.
7. All the Marbles (1981)- Yep, this Robert Aldrich film sounds just crazy enough that I need to see it. Peter Falk managing a female wrestling team. I don't know how good this will be, but if anyone's seen it, please let me know.
8. Sitting Target (1972)- Tarantino is a huge fan of this one, showing it one of the Aint It Cool News Butt-numb-a-thons a few years back, and everything I've read about it describes it as an unrepentantly violent revenge flick. Oliver Reed- and by the way, if you wanna see a bevy of unreleased titles, check out this actor's IMDB page- and Ian Mc Shane bust out of prison to seek revenge on Reed's unfaithful wife. Full of stock British actors, and never released on DVD.
9. The Reflecting Skin (1990)- Director Philip Ridley, one of the few cinematic descendants of David Lynch who doesn't seem to be trying too hard, has a new film which dropped at Toronto this year. "The Reflecting Skin" was one of the first films I can remember seeing on IFC back in the late 90's, and its all but disappeared nowadays. Slow moving at times, it is an atmospheric and weirdly moving coming of age film about a young boy who fears vampires and his own domestic life. Well worth a life on DVD, especially with Ridley back in the director's chair.
10. Trouble Every Day (2001)- Speaking of vampires, Claire Denis' utterly unique take on the horror genre is a startling shock to the system. Vincent Gallo is a scientist who becomes obsessed with some type of blood mutation program and Beatrice Dalle is a mysterious woman who becomes involved with Gallo. Their relationship (literally) consumes each other. The final fifteen minutes of this film are beyond belief, and if you've seen the various stills from "Trouble Every day", it morphs into a bloody and repellant affair. Not an easy film to like, but its baffling that it's not available on DVD.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Patient Observations: 3 From Frederick Wiseman

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is a national landmark amidst the landscape of documentary cinema. So why is it so damn hard to see any of his films? Not known for brevity (a majority of his work runs over 3 hours) or easy subjects (public welfare, a domestic abuse center for women) it's still thrilling to finally receive a small sampling of his work.

Wiseman's penchant for examining various American institutions remained intact from the very beginning in 1967 when he filmed "Titicut Follies" in a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane. It's one of the more transcendent cinema moments where art actually explores reality and changes something. After the buzz from this film and its black and white images of standards instead the facility, "Titicut Follies" was banned but not before it cast a questionable eye on the politics of the state's treatment of its prisoners. Still, one has to wonder who failed to check the negatives before allowing Wiseman and his crew to exit the property. Shown in unflinchingly clinical images are the force feeding of one inmate, hordes of men standing around naked or in feces filled cells, and one seemingly lucid man pleading his case before a board of doctors who seem more interested in keeping their cigarettes lit than actually listening to some of his ideas on incarceration. Granted, these are still "criminally insane" men who committed violent acts, but the idea of such squalid conditions and primitive lack of psychological treatment make one wonder about the living conditions of "normal" inmates who committed the same crimes. These are the types of ideas that vault through one's mind while watching a Wiseman documentary. He allows the images to do the talking, without narration or contextual supposition. Michael Moore, take note.

"Model", Wiseman's 1980 film about the vagaries of the modeling industry in New York, sounded like the most uninspiring entry of the three titles here, yet I came away with a somewhat profound affection for this facade of beauty. Never boring and ultimately propelled through fashion shoots and television commercial sessions that become more and more abstract (from breezy shoots in an apartment or outdoors to a black and white shadow shoot that's selling.... something), "Model" explores the tireless details of every action. How many times must a director shoot a model's leg before they reach the perfect take? Watch how one actress, charged with the seemingly easy job of running down the steps and looking left, becomes an (edited) 30minute ordeal of subtle adjustments and nth degree facial turns that doesn't wrap for days. I became exhausted just watching it all.

Yet, the real coup of Wiseman's film is celebrating the ones that don't make it. Centered around one modeling agency in New York, Wiseman is allowed into the interview room for several talent scouts who talk to wanna-be models, peruse through their portfolios and find increasingly nice ways to say "you're not pretty enough" or "you just don't have IT". For a film that trades in beauty, Wiseman slyly inserts some ugliness.

Even with the deplorable setting of "Titicut Follies", the toughest to watch was "Hospital". Released in 1971, Wiseman was given access to the emergency rooms and corridors of a hospital in New York during the overnight hours. Glimpses of the horror are there- a man who almost overdoses on drugs and is then put into his own private holding cell where he rants, vomits, rants some more, vomits more.... then accepts that he probably needs to head back home to his family and get some help. But with Wiseman's other works, "Hospital" is a multi-faceted portrait of an institution and the people who, for better or worse, runs things. The doctors and nurses in "Hospital" seem genuinely impacted by their patients and strive for the best in their well being. One scene has a doctor calling the administration of another hospital whose patient they just received, upset and filing a complaint for that previous doctor's failure to recognize certain symptoms before transport. After seemingly receiving no sympathy or understanding from the person on the other end of the line, the doctor hangs up the phone, Wiseman's camera capturing a moment of frailty and despair in the doctor as he rubs his eyebrows. It's a small moment, yes, but one befitting the gracious patience of Wiseman to never lose sight of our emotional bearings within these mammoth institutions. He is documenting people and life after all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Top 5 List: The P.T. Anderson Set Pieces

The following post is my contribution to the Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon being hosted over at The Moon In the Gutter blog.

Anderson is known for staging scenes of incredible power, and these, ranked in order of preference, are the ones that continually amaze me:

5. Boogie Nights- known as the Sister Christian scene:

The more I watch this scene, the more I'm in awe of Anderson's command of tone and that spaced out lil improv that Wahlberg does. Just the perfect blend of music and image.

4. Punch Drunk Love- spinning out of control

Anderson's most divisive film is something that grows on you. The scene (starting at about the 4 minute mark) is a virtuoso display of frustration, confusion, anxiety and tension colliding. We've all felt moments like this.

3. Magnolia- breaking down

My favorite Anderson film.... a masterpiece that's awe-inspiring and magical. This scene takes on another dimension as I'm pretty sure its written directly about Anderson's own father.

2. Boogie Nights- bringin' in the 80's

Every movie deserves a scene like this.

1. There Will Be Blood- thar she blows

Still get chills everytime I watch this scene. The glorious tracking shots... Jonny Greenwood's experimental (but brilliant) score... the images that are worthy of a silent film classic...

And a bonus:

Thursday, September 09, 2010

70's Bonanza: The Nickel Ride

Jason Miller is not a widely known figure in the history of movies, but after his well positioned role as Father Karras in "The Exorcist", Hollywood was ripe for the taking. What he did next was star in a minimalistic crime picture for an aged Hollywood filmmaker (Robert Mulligan of "To Kill A Mockingbird") that received poor words from the New York Times upon release and died an obscure death... and its still unavailable on any type of home video distribution. But perhaps "The Nickel Ride" is best experienced without any advanced hype. It's a gangster film without any real gangsters. It's a Los Angeles-filmed picture that highlights the seedy section just outside downtown Los Angeles, refusing to glorify any picturesque portions of the city. And it's a crime movie that fills itself with hushed words about some shady business deals without ever really exploring the vagaries of this crime syndicate's purpose. Sure, there are moments of violence towards the end of the film, but even those are suspect as to whether they actually really happen. "The Nickel Ride" is a film full of contradictions, and that alone makes it a worthy entry in the lost pages of 70's cinema.

If anything, "The Nickel Ride" would make a great double bill with John Cassavete's "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie". Both are films that delay the inevitable for a low level crime boss. Both films feature lead characters who circle the bounds of reality and eventually become trapped in over their head. And both films certainly understand time, place and character over genre can be an exhilerating method of storytelling. The basic idea in "The Nickel Ride" is this: as Cooper, Jason Miller is a low level crime boss struggling to keep his 3 or 4 square block empire from fading into obscurity. He's working on a deal for his boss (John Hillerman) that will create a row of empty warehouses where the syndicate can park and store stolen goods. The deal is not going well, and Miller huffs and puffs with desperation throughout the entire film, trying to stave off the possible hitman (a wonderful country hitman played to perfection by Bo Hopkins) that he believes his boss has dispatched against him, as well as protecting an old friend in debt and his young girlfriend (Linda Haynes) who rarely understands how deep Cooper's involved. The way in which Mulligan and screenwriter Eric Roth (later writer of "Ali", "Munich" and here his first script) portray the dying gasps of Cooper to save his business are fascinating. If we didn't know any better, we'd think Cooper was trying to save his hardware store, not a criminal empire. "The Nickel Ride" is almost exhausting in the way Cooper hustles through his days, finding a payphone to make calls, checking at a hotel where his contact never shows up, staving off the worries of his girlfriend with a weekend in the country.... "The Nickel Ride" is probably one of the best examples of just how fucking hard it must be to run your own criminal world. Add to all of this Cooper's deteriorating mindset due to paranoia, and the whole film is hazy stumble towards the inevitable. It's a brilliant one as well.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Top 5 List: Songs That Should Be Used In A Movie.... Somehow, Someway

5. Max Richter- "Embers"

After Richter's compositions were used in Scorsese's "Shutter Island" earlier this year, his breathtaking sounds are simply made for cinema.

4. The Walker Brothers- "Lines"

After their song "The Electrician" was used so magnificently in "Bronson", I think The Walker Brothers are seriously overdue for some recognition. "Lines", one of four songs in a row from their 1978 album "Nite Flights", is just the song to convey.... something cool.

3. The Cranberries- "Zombie"

This nineties song which haunted my youth after the first time I heard it has probably been used somewhere (any one know?) but I don't recall it. Still a terrific song that has cinematic potential for any scene.

2. Smile Smile- "Sad Song"

This Dallas duo has yet to make it big, but their sound is incredible and ripe for the next Jennifer Aniston rom-com? Or maybe trailer.

1. The Twilight Singers- "Hyperballad"

If you're a fan of "Rescue Me", then one understands the power that Greg Dulli's strained voice can have over visual images. Denis Leary is a fan and it shows, featuring The Twilight Singers in several shows. I could easily see their sound complementing a Duplass brothers micro-indie.

Taking all suggestions for your own.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Animal Kingdom

My first introduction to the oft-referenced Aussie New Wave (along with "The Square" and "The Disappearance of Alice Creed") is David Michod's "Animal Kingdom", a startling debut that not only ranks as the best debut in several years, but very close to the best film I'll probably see this year. From the opening scene where young Jay (James Frecheville) quietly processes the death of his mother from a drug overdose to the operatic score sprayed across grainy, black and white images of a bank robbery, Michod is in firm control. Jay goes to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and soon becomes mixed up in a violent life of crime headed by his four uncles, each one more depraved and desperate than the next. Michod, who also wrote the convoluted story, uses Jay as our cipher into the story, giving us glimpses of innocence slowly turned inward. Also in the mix is Guy Pearce, a stoic police detective of the Armed Robbery Unit, a specialized force chartered to take down groups such as the Cody family (one of Michod's many western influenced touchstones). Yet "Animal Kingdom" is above all else a drama. There are no long gun battles. The violence (when it does happen) is swift and jarring, punctuated by gun shots that were deafening during my showing. The tension becomes almost unbearable in certain scenes. As the eldest brother, Pope, Ben Mendelsohn is a terrifying screen presence, ultimately someone who wants to "talk out" everyone's problems one second, then running after family like the Terminator the next. Michod also nails the details. How often do we see a film about cops, yet rarely watch them getting ready for work, being handed their service revolver, then having to fire all six chambers into a tube to ensure the gun is safely not loaded? "Animal Kingdom" revels in these details. It's simply a masterpiece.

The Last Exorcism

Daniel Stamm's "The Last Exorcism" builds on the reputation of horror mockumentary (think "The Blair Witch Project") with a tale about a charlatan preacher and his final deed of exorcism in small town Louisiana. I've said it before, but a film such as "The Last Exorcism" is the hardest type of film to write about. It falls right in that 3 star category. While watching it, I was entertained and even creeped out in a few scenes (such as the evil smile given off by the possessed girl just as a door closes), but once it's over, one finds it all a trifle. And really, after "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist", this whole genre struggles to find anything refreshing.