Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Musical Interlude: Saxophone version

Can't stop listening to these lately. Destroyer, especially, is a new discovery for me.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The First Batch of 2012 Films

The Grey

Joe Carnahan is an interesting filmmaker. He obviously has the chops- see his intense and terrific “Narc”- but then washes any cohesive skills away with dreck such as “The A Team” and “Smokin Aces”. But then along comes “The Grey”… a film that’s certainly not fit for the January dumping grounds and proves to be a punishing but poetic meditation on the encroaching specter of death by hungry wolves. Starring Liam Neeson, “The Grey” follows a group of Alaskan workers as they struggle to survive not only a plane crash in a harsh wilderness but the impending hunt by a den of wolves. What’s most interesting about “The Grey”, besides its unilateral approach to non-commercial expectations in a commercial release, is its open--to-interpretation narrative and denouement. The wolves, designed solely as glaring eyes in the darkness and CGI rendering, may be real or they could all be paranoid projections of the mind by the sick and genuinely disaffected survivors. Like “Narc”, Carnahan seems fascinated by memories of loss and regret and their powerful impact on strong men. “The Grey” would make for a perfect double feature with his previous film. But besides all that lofty praise, “The Grey” is an excellent genre film, owned by Neeson’s steely performance and a sound editing team that creates a scary atmosphere of blistering winds, off-screen howls and crushing metal that linger long after the film is over.

United Red Army

At three hours and 10 minutes in length, Koji Wakamatsu‘s “United Red Army” could be called the definitive cinematic representation of the Japanese Red Army faction- if it weren’t so damn hard to comprehend the appearances and disappearances of its massive cast and decidedly ‘interior’ focus on the human being rather than the revolutionary movement. What I mean is this- “United Red Army” is a very good film, but Wakamatsu experimental technique aims for something more interesting than a simplified documentation of the terrorist organization. One does get their history lesson here. For example, in the first 45 minutes or so, the film details the growth of student civil unrest during the 1960’s and this outcry of emotion turning activism, followed by the marriage of several factions under the moniker of the JRA. From that point on, “United Red Army” becomes like a chamber piece as the remaining members of the army hole up in a mountain cabin and selfishly decimate their ranks through jealousy, political in-fighting and grandiose notions of superiority. People come and go with a written message detailing their eventual fate, capture or death. Then, the final third of the film details the annihilation of the remaining members after a ten day standoff with police in a mountain retreat. Wakamatsu’s real judgment of the Red Army feels obfuscated, yet “United Red Army” is an intelligent approach to the history of a radical organization and its eventual downfall- egoism. And through all of this, the film refuses to locate a central figure to anchor its ideas, choosing the group rhetoric as its focus. True communism as cinema, perhaps?

Safe House

Take one-fourth cup Jason Bourne, a half cup of Tony Scott and add Denzel Washington… and you get “Safe House”, a slightly engaging but ultimately average action flick with yet another fluorescent visual scheme and two-second editing that covers up for any real originality. The character arch is there for director Daniel Espinosa and actors Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington. At certain parts, I really rooted for these guys. But the aggressive, handheld style of shooting is, I suppose, the here and now and I better get used to it. Fact is, the faster and louder a film gets, the more I lose interest.

A Seperation

Asghar Farhadi’s well-conceived “A Separation” follows in the tradition of Iranian cinema at its finest. Simple human moral dilemmas increasingly grow until they almost explode. In this example, a family whose father (Payman Naadi) and mother (a terrific Leila Hatami) are on the verge of a divorce become involved in a complex war of words against a caretaker (Sareh Bayat) and her hot tempered husband (Shahab Hosseini). As the film develops, it becomes a faint legal potboiler with the children (and especially daughter Termeh, Sarina Farhardi) standing to lose the most. Writer/director Farhardi will, hopefully, win the Oscar for best foreign language film and rightly so. “A Separation” is a tense, perfectly crafted piece of cinema that treats people with dignity and intelligence, constantly shifting our affinities for each character as the film rolls along. And the final scene is just perfect, coming full circle with a haunting message of familial disharmony that far outweighs the meaningless legal procedural that came before it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Revisiting the Faves: Until the End of the World (5 hour cut)

Until the End of the World ranks as my number 7 favorite film from the year 1991. This is a review from the 280 minute German PAL DVD.

Directed by Wim Wenders at the apex of his critically acclaimed career (following "Wings of Desire"), "Until the End of the World" was released in 1991 after a long production stint that spanned several continents, languages and level of actors. As a science fiction film, its loopy and goofy. As a road movie, its mammoth. And it's also a typical Wenders film in that it sharply divides the viewer. Those of us Wenders devotees abolsutely love it while others remember the film soley for its remarkable soundtrack. Add to the cocktail mixture the fact that the film was severely truncated upon U.S. release (cut from over 5 hours to two and a half) and one gets the sense that "Until the End of the World" is one of those great, inpsired acts of personal filmmaking that will never receive its actual due. In my small part of the universe, this is an attempt to give Wenders and his full version the recognition.

Essentially a five hour love story between nomad Claire (Solveig Dommartin) and on-the-run cyber fugutive Sam (William Hurt), "Until the End of the World" works in an apocalyptic story concerning a satellite that's crashing to Earth and the unsure effects of this radialogical disaster in the year 1999. Claire meets Sam in a subway terminal and falls in love with him when he asks her to help him escape a bounty hunter. Sam has smuggled out some technology from the States.... a device which allows him to record images and overlay his own thoughts on them, all in the hopes of delivering color images back to his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau) in Australia. Along the winding, arduous journey across four continents is Eugene (Sam Neill), Claire's jilted lover, whose voiceover leads the narrative and is unwilling to accept her love for Sam. Longtime Wenders collaborater Rudiger Volger also stars as a cyber detective helping Eugene track down the lovers on the run. Over the course of the film human connection becomes elusive. Wenders has his characters find each other, spend harmonious time together, and then wake up the next day to find various factions have moved on with their own independent goals to another city or country. And everyone else has no choice but to continue the global chase. Inevitably, this rag-tag group of scientists and detectives converge on the Australian Outback after the satellite has crashed to Earth and caused all electronic communication to fail. Through all the globe-trotting, "Until the End of the World" keeps its gaze on the sweet romance between Hurt and Dommartin. The futuristic, post-punk aesthetic is firmly in place, yet Wenders and writer Peter Carey have essentially crafted a screwball road movie with an innocent couple at the helm.

From the originally released two and a half hour version, the director's cut never alters its original story, allowing the longer version to develop and linger. Conceived as a mini-series, the 5 hour version also plays like a TV movie, dividing the film in three parts that could be subtitled as "The Chase", "Going Home" and "Home". While the first two parts deal with the connection and flight of Claire and Sam to Australia where his mad scientist father (Max von Sydow) and mother reside, the final 90 minutes hits moments of deep sensitivity as a son tries to not only win the acceptance of his father, but give his old mother the sense of sight. It's here, in the final third portion of the film, where Wenders' themes of technology and aimless collaboration between various road-warriors really begins to gel. The final 90 minutes of "Until the End of the World" is a moving and powerful examination of memory and regret. One can bemoan the time it takes to get there, but once it does, "Until the End of the World" feels like Wenders' most heartfelt experiment to date.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Last Few Films I've Seen, February Edition

1. Higher Ground (2011)- First time director Vera Farmiga adapts the memoirs of Carolyn Briggs in a woman's search for spiritual satisfaction that grows and wanes. Also starring Farmiga, this is a highly intelligent and moving story. The moment between John Hawkes and his ex-wife at a dinner table over a birthday party is such an honest and moving moment... and the whole film honors this type of naturalism wonderfully. A real treat that was mis-managed during its release last year.

2. Mysteries of Lisbon (2011)- Raoul Ruiz's highly regarded period piece is lush and involving, even at a running time of 4 plus hours. Its oil-painting aesthetic, characters that appear and then re-appear as others, and swooning narrative can be confusing at times, but at a certain point one has to let go and enjoy it.

3. Ken Park (2002)- Known for its outre` teen sexual posturing, Larry Clark's tale of suburban anomie is little more than that- teen posturing. I guess I really shouldn't expect anything less from the maker of "kids" and "Bully".

4. Fright Night (2011)- Colin Farrell is good and it took me forever to realize that's Imogeen Potts... an actress who really stood out in "28 Days Later". Other than that, not so much going on here.

5. Texasville (1990)- Oh how far the mighty have fallen. "The Last Picture Show" is pretty damn close to masterpiece status and one of the most evocative renderings of small town Texas life ever put on film. "Texasville" is a chore to get through, with grating characters and a script that feels labored and cliched. A huge disappointment.

6. Contraband (2012)- Gritty thriller with greasy haired guys doing bad things along the ports. There are a few nice set pieces and Mark Wahlburg can do this type of thing in his sleep.

7. Bellflower (2011)- Hipster artiness to the extreme. If this is the future of independent cinema, I think we're in trouble.

8. Haywire (2012)- An action thriller from the chameleon of filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh. The fight sequences with Gina Carana are thrilling and seeing her tussle with Michael Fassbender in a tight hotel room is exhilerating. I just wish Soderbergh would've abandoned the Oceans Eleven soundtrack.

Friday, February 03, 2012

HBO Does It Again: Broken Down Ballplayers

By all accounts, I really shouldn't enjoy Jody Hill's "Eastbound and Down". I've made my stance pretty clear here in the past- modern comedy, with the exception of a few pieces here and there, has gone down the tubes. It's all improvised sketches expanded to (boring) feature length premises or misogynistic and cruel. "Eastbound and Down" is all of that- with Will Ferrell as a producer to boot- but it also strikes some pretty deep down moments of empathy while maintaining a steadfast view of a true sociopath.

The idea, now finished in its second season, follows a once good relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves named Kenny Powers and his (mal)adjustment back into society. As the vulgar, cocksure Powers, Danny McBride sets his tirades to autopilot and his confident showmanship up to 11. Moving back home with his brother (the excellent John Hawkes) and re-kindling a flirtation with his high school girlfriend April (Katy Mixon), Powers chooses to be a gym teacher as his new post-baseball profession. Every self-absorbed, largely delusional figure has to find himself a sidekick, and here enters dim witted fellow teacher Stevie (Steve Janowski) to join Powers in his many adventures around suburban North Carolina. What follows is less an episodic series than a trenchant, brutally funny portrayal of Powers' attempts to cash back in on his limited success and win back his former girlfriend. Creator and sometime director Jody Hill has assembled a cast and crew that fully understands the absurdity of the situation, refusing to pull any punches and keeping the tone as black as possible. For example, the first time Powers sees April after years, the camera slowly zooms in on her face in a likely sweet moment of reconnection before it alters the zoom onto her breasts. Dirty yes, but its these harsh, unsuspecting moments consistently break the monotonous and reclassify "Eastbound and Down" as an uncompromising study of a dark heart.

Season 2, which picks up right after Powers has an "oh shit" moment in the finale of season one refreshes itself with a change of venue (Mexico) but refuses to soften the character of Kenny Powers. He connects with an amateur baseball team, finds romance with another beauty that he surely doesn't deserve (Ana de la Reguera) and traces for roots of his past. But while the first season spends a majority of its time establishing the bleak worldview of Powers, season 2 breaks through the nihilism a bit. In one scene of an episode directed by David Gordon Green, a bit of haphazard tenderness seeps into the closing moment as Kenny and Vita (de la Reguera) ride a roller coaster. The expression of free-falling bliss on Vita's face and Kenny's half-hearted acceptance of being in that moment with her resemble the shaggy-dog honesty that Green formalized in his early film efforts such as "All the Real Girls" and "George Washington". Alongside Wayne Kramer's evocative score, this scene more than makes up for any of the jokes that fall short or any scenes that run on just a bit too long while McBride improvises his vulgar dialogue.

I'm just beginning the first season of "Boardwalk Empire", another tent pole HBO success that, most likely, gives Jody Hill and co-writer Ben Best more of a creative leash with "Eastbound and Down". Rarely talked about... at least in the circles I travel anyway..."Eastbound and Down" is a show that deserves to be discovered. While Larry David has the market cornered on subtle aggravation and social quirkiness, Kenny Powers is the real psychopath. But at least his baseball card is still worth at least five dollars.