Sunday, July 31, 2011

70's Bonanza: Man On a Swing

One of the more underrated directors of the 70's and 80's, Frank Perry has worked across a wide swath of genre and mood, rarely leaving behind his laid back Southern California vibe no matter how dark the material... although Perry himself was a New Yorker by birth. Two wonderful films in the late 60's, "The Swimmer" with Burt Lancaster and "Last Summer"- which is a remarkable and hard to find ensemble of teenage beach bum lifestyle marred by the encroaching malaise of adulthood- are morally ambitious and thematically pregnant efforts. In the 70's, Perry helmed several highly regarded films including "Rancho Delux" and "Diary of a Mad Housewife" before moving into rather outrageous territory with "Mommie Dearest", "Compromising Positions" and the Shelley Long comedy "Hello Again" (anyone remember that?). But in between these high points of a long career, there were smaller, lesser known works such as a raggedly vicious portrait of the iconic western figure Doc Holiday with Stacey Keach as "Doc" or a 70's indie favorite by many filmmakers about a woman's descent into madness with "Play It As It Lays". Also in the mix was "Man On A Swing".... Perry's entry into the detective-whodunit series with a twist of the occult thrown in for good measure.

Starring Cliff Robertson, "Man On A Swing" begins with the discovery and ensuing investigation of a local girl found murdered and left for dead in her vehicle in a strip mall parking lot. It's not long into the reconstruction of the crime that Robertson receives a phone call from a local man named Franklin (Joel Grey) claiming to be a psychic with important information about the murder. The psychic reveals numerous previously undisclosed details about the murder scene and events leading up to it, which causes Robertson to use the man as a possible lead. Quickly, "Man On A Swing" discards the typical progression of the murder mystery involving the girl and focuses its attention on the psychological battle between psychic and skeptic. In a wonderful performance, Cliff Robertson runs the gamut of emotions from extreme guilt of not being able to crack the case (especially when another dead girl turns up) to angry dissidence when his attempts to debunk the psychic powers of Franklin fails. There's also some telling humor, such as the scene in the film's opening when a local police officer, chauffeuring Robertson to the crime scene, flips on the siren. Without looking away from the window, Robertson mumbles "turn that shit off..." That single line of dialogue tells more about the gruff humility and lazy informality of the man (and the town) than any other establishing shot.

The terrific thing about the film is its unique unpredictability, giving equal screen time to both cop and psychic. As Franklin, Joel Grey portrays the dichotomy of his character with ease. When he slips into a trance or becomes extremely nervous over the unexpected "test" set up by the police chief, he becomes a bundle of nerves and high strung energy. When living a normal life, he becomes even more menacing in silent ways, as if he's a prophetic minister jockeying for his own church. Like "Zodiac" and countless other serial killer films, the real tension is in the nuanced details and probing glances of seeker versus hunter. I'm not quite comparing "Man On A Swing" to the caliber of Fincher's masterpiece, but it is a hugely neglected film that deserves more attention. And the ending, which confidently hinges an ambiguous final scene between Robertson and Grey, does carve out room for its own place in the annuls of haunting, thought provoking conclusions.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Francesco Rosi Files: Lucky Luciano and Many Wars Ago

In "Lucky Luciano" and "Many Wars Ago", Italian director Francesco Rosi continues his exploration of Italy's evolving landscape both past and present. Through the gangster genre and the war film, it's also safe to say he's no less angry in documenting the rise of unchecked power across a fifty year span.

Like he did with "Salvatore Guiliano" almost ten years previously, Rosi takes on another powerful criminal figure, using only his name and legend as a jumping off point for something more devious and conspiratorial. But unlike the character of Guiliano, longtime Rosi collaborator Gian Maria Volonte does get a majority of the screen time as the titular Luciano... albeit in very drab moments of political corruption. If one is looking for the pulp aesthetics that were generating waves out of Hollywood in the likes of "Capone", "The Godfather" and "The St. Valentines day Massacre", "Lucky Luciano" is a different beast. There are a few moments of gunfire and bloodshed (mostly aimed at Rod Steiger in his supporting role when he rocks the mafioso boat), but Rosi's aim is for something more intelligent. Picking up when Luciano (Volonte) is deported from New York back to his homeland in Italy, the film charts the American Army's involvement with corrupt businessmen and politicians in rebuilding that country's infrastructure. Though still a target for American intelligence forces, Rosi portrays Luciano as the puppet master of Italy's financial rebuilding through shady real estate dealings and the overall influence of his Mafia network. In typical mosaic Rosi style, "Lucky Luciano" bounces back and forth in time tracking several strands of the mobster's life and the confluence of police forces slowly observing his every move.

Stylistically, "Lucky Luciano" is a very energetic affair. Utilizing a roving camera that repeats several lateral pans, first across the faces of a group of Italian women enjoying themselves at an army dance then later across the gruff faces of mob bosses as they're introduced- in a sly echo of Scorsese's "Goodfellas" some 17 years later- the film feels kinetic. Even when the situation is static, such as the scene of two heads of state discussing the eventual untamed powers of Luciano if something isn't done, Rosi frames the ceiling overhead as an impending force of nature. Much more than any of his other films, mood and composition takes on a secondary feeling in "Lucky Luciano". And one understands this was all a success when, in the final scene as Luciano falls to his death of a heart attack, it's clear that his tight fist of control over Italy's complex future is sealed.... and suddenly the door slamming shut on Michael Corleone in "The Godfather" makes for a rapt comparison with Rosi's more muted effort.

Rosi’s inaugural film of the 70’s, “Many Wars Ago” is his answer to the war movie… albeit a very angry and, unsurprisingly, proletariat depiction of Italian troops during World War 1. Focusing on one unit during their numerous failed attempts to charge on the entrenched positions of the German army, “Many Wars Ago” details the minutia of war, such as the five minute sequence which portrays the inevitably deadly task of soldiers cutting apart barbed wire. It’s only after the first attempt, when both soldiers are killed by opposing fire, that the superior who ordered the push realizes the wire cutters are too dull to get the job done. At first glance, this seems like black comedy, but Rosi treats the impending mutiny of the soldiers against their commanding officers with dire seriousness.

And it’s that inequality between officer and soldier that lies at the heart of “Many Wars Ago”. For the first hour, the film tracks several men, both officers and soldiers along the wintry front line. Gian Maria Volonte, who would work with Rosi for many years to come, immediately appears as the protagonist before he’s killed in battle. The focus soon narrows on General Leone,(Alain Cuny), a beast of imposing will and unnerving invincibility. Even when his lieutenant, Sassu (Mark Frechette) tries to lure him into a spot with a perfect view from the enemy sniper, the general walks away unscathed. Slowly, the psychological conflict between Sassu and Leone boils over into full blown mutiny. The second half of “Many Wars Ago” examines the obstinate battle of wills between the men, ending in typical fatalistic Rosi fashion. It would make for a perfect double feature with Stanley Kubrick's "Paths Of Glory".

Friday, July 22, 2011

Regional Review- Boxing Gym

I've always appreciated the (dying) sport of boxing. I can remember watching Friday Night Fights during the summer with my grandfather. I've been to numerous boxing events in my time, continually marveling at the dynamics of the sport... appreciating the thought that goes into every punch and counter punch. In spite of the now dominant MMA, boxing is and always will be a cerebral event that celebrates and awards reaction over action. As he's done with this country's major institutions over the past 40 years, director Frederick Wiseman simply observes the process and the people, tackling the sport of boxing and its rhythmic, at times floating, mechanics with gentle observation. And even though there are very few exterior shots of Austin, Texas revealed in Wiseman's documentary on Lord's Gym, one can sense the tight community and melancholy attitude that dots this unique Texas landscape previously exploited by filmmakers as diverse as Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez.

Tucked away off Lamar Avenue outside downtown Austin, Lord's Gym is presented as a cluttered cave of forgotten equipment and retro ideas. Focusing on its owner and trainer, Richard Lord, he comes off as a tough but loving teacher of the sport. When potential applicants come into the gym, Lord espouses the need for boxing as the ability to avoid fighting rather than getting into them. Wiseman culls footage from several facets of the place, from Lord's training of boxers to the average joe who pays his $50 a month application fee and learns timing from the speed bag. There are hanger-ons (including ex boxers) who watch the flurry of activity with punch-drunk sideways glances, moms with their infant babies perched ever so carefully in their cribs on the floor and youths who begin their experience beating on a tire outside. Wiseman molds all of this into his typically systematic editing style that lulls the viewer into the film's hypnotic spell. And when current events slyly work their way into the documentary- as two men discuss the Virgina Tech shooting that is just happening- "Boxing Gym" becomes a metaphor for defending oneself in these chaotic and unsettling times.

Despite its truncated running time (a mere 90 minutes) perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Wiseman's latest is the way he builds the context of the film, denying the viewer the ultimate pleasure of watching two people fight, training his camera on the friendly interactions between average customers of the gym and their shared camaraderie in the process of boxing over the brute force. More interesting than watching yet another boxing match is the long take of a man and woman shadow boxing separately in the same ring, seemingly unaware of each other. They are both, obviously, deep in thought over their foot work and ability to bounce off the ropes and Wiseman carries this rhythmic dance for what feels like an eternity, giving us yet another transcendent moment of live lived rather than fictionalized. Shots of the University of Texas and the Austin Capital do make their presence, eventually, in "Boxing Gym" but they're dwarfed by Richard Lord's benevolent monologues and the denizens of his gym.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fifty Yard Line

Here we sit at the halfway mark of 2011 and my complaint sounds like that of any other year. The movies are awful! Current mainstream cinema sucks! Where have all the masterpieces gone? And while I don't usually fall into that rhetoric, I am scratching my head at the lackluster amount of movies I've relinquished my time to this year.

51 movies into the year and there stands only one true film I'd call a masterpiece and think to list on any countdown at the end of the year... Jim Mickle's super-indie zombie/vampire film "Stake Land".

There are others that just barely missed the mark (a sturdy three and a half stars on the 'ol Ebert meter): Christopher Smith's atmospheric direct to video "Black Death", James Wan's "Insidious" (just the type of slow-burn horror movie I love before it turns batshit in its final 30 minutes), Takashi Miike's generic but extremely well crafted "13 Assassins" and Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip" which is really nothing more than Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon hamming it up across England.

The auteurs of the world, like Terrence Malick and Robert Redford, produced new works that sparked conversation, but little else. And for someone such as myself that usually prescribes whole heartily to the auteur theory, this was a HUGE disappointment, especially on the Malick-front.

Still, we have the real meat of the year ahead and one can never get depressed about the movies until January rolls around. Regardless, there have been a few enjoyments from the movies this year, so the top 5 performances so far this year:

5. Marion Cotillard, "Midnight In Paris"

I know the role of a 1930's Parisian party girl seems tailor-made for French actress Cotillard, but damn if she still doesn't take this character in affecting and lovely ways. Her eyes are always so vibrant... her scenes with Owen Wilson deliver a yearning that feels far beyond her years and she doesn't fall into the trap of morphing into one of Woody Allen's "girl on a pedestal" life lessons that have been so prevalent in his films for years. Even though she exists in a rare form of time travel, I was certainly rooting for her and Wilson to end up together. And, "Midnight In Paris" is a refreshing change of pace for a director whose been trying to re-invent himself (unsuccessfully) for a few years now.

4. Emily Blunt in "The Adjustment Bureau"

"The Adjustment Bureau" was a very competent Philip K. Dick adaptation, but its the performance of Emily Blunt (who I've been admiring and lusting after for several years now) as the ballet dancer who 'accidentally' bumps into Congressional candidate Matt Damon that really puts a romantic tinge into the cerebral sci-fi stuff. Like Cotillard, Blunt is able to do so much with her eyes, and this performance, as all boundaries of the universe seem intent on keeping her and Damon apart, is a stunner.

3 and 2. Ricardo Darin and Martina Gusman in "Carancho"

Pablo Trapero has the potential to be huge. Like the next Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu huge... if that makes any sense. "Carancho" is an angry, violent film about insurance fraud, budding love and the general state of malaise present in Argentina. Darin and Grusman (who has starred in several Trapero films, notably in his terrific "Lion's Den" as an imprisoned woman) crash into each other figuratively and fall in and out love as Darin plans insurance scams while she works all night first as a paramedic and then in a hospital where fistfights routinely break out because patients housed in the same ER room were fighting before they were admitted. "Carancho" is a bold movie.... and the more I reflect on it the better it becomes. Trapero has serious chops as a filmmaker- just watch the way he deftly handles complicated long takes such as the final shootout or the steamy sexual tension that builds between Grusman and Darin as they dance together.

1. Elle Fanning, "Super 8"

Derivative of much, J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" is still a swiftly moving and fun movie that reminded me strongly of 80's goodies like "The Goonies". But the real emotional thrust of the film- which I won't give away- belongs to Elle Fanning as the sole girl of the all-boys-club up into their necks with an alien invasion. Two scenes in particular: the first her "audition" that outperforms anything the boys could have anticipated and secondly, a very moving monologue where she attempts to apologize for the actions of her father as black and white images from an 8mm camera reflect across her face will be one of the more memorable scenes of this year.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Francesco Rosi Files: The Mattei Affair

My appreciation for Francesco Rosi just continues to grow. The Italian director who tackles themes of government corruption without resorting to oblique paranoia.... or highlights the mafia in the most unique manner ("Lucky Luciano", featured in a later post)... and creates moving dramas of brotherhood without the slightest sense of mawkishness ("Three Brothers")... he incisively avoids genre conventions while creating films that intelligently pick apart some of Italy's greatest scandals and bureaucratic failings.

In "The Mattei Affair", Rosi trains his lens on Enrico Mattei, Italy's answer to Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood". Growing to power in the 50's as the premier researcher and developer of the country's deep deposits of methane, Mattei eventually became a powerful figure in Third World oil development. Played to dry perfection by Gian Maria Volonte, "The Mattei Affair" trades in words and long speeches instead of action. Rosi spirals together several strands of Mattei's life, before and after the mysterious plane crash that took his life in 1962. Not only do we see Mattei's early attempts to wrestle power from the oil magnates with his cheaply produced methane alternative, but the film tracks the day of the actual plane crash, complete with droning soundtrack music and confusing excerpts of dialogue and investigations as well as the attempts by reporters and writers in the years after his death to ascertain the truth. It all culminates in a clinical examination of good hearted intentions turning internationally dangerous when politics and human wealth clash.

Often criticized as being a visually boring director (although there are several stunning tracking shots in his 1962 film "Hands Over the City"), "The Mattei Affair" features a unique visual schematic, none more so exciting than the stationary shot of a 17 story building slowly turning on its office lights as news of Mattei's death burns across the wire. Or the dusk shots of methane being pumped from its deposits and Mattei confidently holding his arms up in a sign of victory which surely prompts the viewer to echo the manic determination presented in P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood".... a film which surely cites Rosi's effort as its antecedent. But in the end, "The Mattei Affair" is a haunting documentary of sorts that merges cinematic life with real life when one of Rosi's researchers, a man named Mauro de Mauro disappeared and never resurfaced in 1970 after obtaining snippets of one of Mattei's last speeches. This sidenote, touched on obliquely in the film, resounds as one of the mysteriously deft touches Rosi often brings to his exceptional films of dynamic national struggle... one that seems to say no one gets out alive.