Friday, March 25, 2016

The Current Cinema 16.2

Knight of Cups

If Terence Malick's "Knight of Cups" existed as a travelogue of modern day California, complete with Emmanual Lubezki's stunning images of both of the familiar and the not-so familiar etches of landscape in and around the city of angels, then we'd have one of the best pieces of cultural propaganda around. But, it's not a travelogue and Malick continues his wispy, spiritual examination of man including the mid-life crisis of Hollywood-ite Christian Bale as he wanders the world trying to escape his ennui filled existence of paternal frustration and sexual conquests. Unlike his last film, "To the Wonder", his male alter ego doesn't get to bed hop with two beautiful women and then complain about it, but something close to a dozen, which features some of the most dazzling ladies in the biz including Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Natalie Portman and Imogen Poots. It's a terrible life whose rampant vapidity is as clear as the black eye sheltered behind the sunglasses of one of the beautiful women lounging at a luxurious party. And we get that over and over and over. Once able to conjure up majestic emotions and elicit a primal sense of mood from his philosophical meanderings, writer-director Malick has lost me with his last two films, succumbing to moribund scenarios that feel less like actual films and more akin to someone working out his own personal demons on the screen in front of us. Sometimes, in the most personal art, that can be liberating and terrifyingly vivid for the viewer. Here, it just comes off as facile.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Infinitely better than the shaky-cam found footage 'parallel' film in this burgeoning series, "10 Cloverfield Lane" benefits from a great lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in what's essentially a psychological two-hander between her and captor John Goodman. Naturally, the film delves into monster territory like the first at the end, but what precedes it is just as interesting and unexpected. A nice surprise.

Get A Job- Full review on Dallas Film Now

Krisha- Locally grown film that deserves a view after its long festival circuit run. Review also found on Dallas Film Now

Saturday, March 19, 2016

On "Remember"

In the last decade or so, the Holocaust drama has given way to a subsection of films exploitatively known as the Holocaust-revenge drama. Rooted in fact and applying a thriller apparatus in hopes of assuaging the complicated moral feelings of guilt, anger and stubborn reconciliation that typically breathes within any conversation about the Holocaust, anyone wanting a more procedural and humane history of this should read Simon Wiesenthal's book "Justice Not Vengeance". The latest incarnation of the Nazi hunt lies in Atom Egoyan's "Remember".Weisenthal himself is name-dropped several times here, but Egoyan and writer Benjamin August shoot for a more primal idea of revenge.

That revenge comes in the form of elderly Zev Guttman (Christopher Plummer), housed in a nursing home and dealing with the recent loss of his wife. To complicate matters, Zev suffers from bouts of Alzheimer disease, which forces him to carry a letter from fellow home patient Max (Martin Landau) that clearly delineates his mission of tracking down one Rudy Kurlander. No doubt is cast on the assignment given Zev. In fact, his first step along the journey (after walking out of the nursing home) is to buy a firearm. Tasked with four addresses around the country- including one stop in Canada- we observe as Zev ambles in and out of the lives of four various men where past atrocities are either justified or ignored, depending on whether its the right Rudy Kurlander or not.

Known for once helming complicated and multi-layered dramas that often exist in the morbid reaches of human loss or obsession, Egoyan seems to have lost his way recently. While "Remember" isn't as muddled as "Where the Truth Lies" or as ordinary as "Chloe", it still remains a fairly straight-forward and uninspired thriller. It does, however, work best in the way it deals with the effects of revenge and memory on others, especially in the innocent and confused eyes of children endlessly sheltered at the edges of the film and forced to interact or deal with the violence of adults.

Less interesting are the clunky mechanics of Plummer's travels to and from said adversarial showdowns. "Remember" skirts the edges of believability in how easily one slow, old man can smuggle a gun in and out of the country, ramble freely from numerous hospitals and old age homes and defy authorities when he uses his his driver's license and credit cards. Even more misguided is the inclusion of a final act twist that, while certainly at home in something akin to a Brian DePalma film, cheapens the impact of "Remember" and its justification of violence begetting violence. See, there's those complicated feelings of guilt, anger and stubborn reconciliation I mentioned earlier. Perhaps the best way to make any type of Holocaust film is the way Claude Lanzmann did with "Shoah". I'd much rather watch that heartbreaking seven hours of historical confrontation again rather than the 90 minutes of Egoyan's elderly-Mr-Majestyk.

Remember is currently in limited release around the country and expanding wider in the coming weeks.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Early Spring Edition

1. Frameup (1995)- I've loved all of Jon Jost's no-budget and pleasantly unfettered films... until this one. Overtly Godardian in the way it uses literary quotes, jarring intertitles and stilted acting calling attention to itself for a higher purpose, "Frameup" could more likely be called "sendup". Nothing about this film- which deals with two very simple and prurient people who hook up and go on a crime spree in the loosest sense of the word- is meant to be taken seriously. Regardless of Jost's deconstructive reaches, "Frameup" is the type of film that hypnotizes the viewer with repetition and avant garde stylistics, which are all things Jost has done much more poetically in other films.

2. Hardcore (2004)- Misfire "fairy tale" wrapped up in a lesbian-hooker revenge drama with plenty of grubby locations, forced sex and a splatter of shrill violence. Director Iliadis shows sparks of creativity and emotion (especially in his use of music and a re-working of Abba's "Dancing Queen" to great effect) but too much of "Hardcore" is frigid and uninspired.

3. The Witch (2015)- When the lights came up after my screening, one person muttered "well, that happened." This type of overextended expectations for a subtle, dread-soaked atmospheric horror film is inevitable. Marketing campaigns have to sell a film, but I wonder if 95% of the moviegoing audience for Robert Egger's "The Witch" understand its not a Blumhouse production. They were disappointed. I was not.

4. Juvenile Court (1973)- The growth of Wiseman's documentaries observing the subtle interactions and moral non-judgment of America's various institutions takes full shape here with  "Juvenile Court". Clocking in at 2 and a half hours and assembled in a rhythm that will mark his work for years to come, this film could perhaps be called the real "making of a murderer". Following a handful of troubled youths as they appear before the courts for crimes they've possibly committed (including one chilling example of a boy accused of sexually assaulting a six year old girl), the film is perhaps more startling today for the way in which indecency and guilt is handled in an almost flippant manner, not subjected to over-saturated media hype or numbness to its rampant foundations. It's even more terrifying to believe many of these kids probably continued their crimes for decades after this documentary was finished.

5. Funeral In Berlin (1966)- The second of three Harry Palmer films (and I'd rank this right behind "The Ipcress File" and before "Million Dollar Brain"), is such a cool, laidback and unhurried affair thatI was beginning to wonder if any type of gun would make an appearance. They do, but this is all spycraft that I prefer the best. Talk, double crosses, double identities and beautiful ladies who may or may not be Nazi agents.

6. The Public Woman (1984)- Not one of Zulawski's best. Manic, nervy and wild.... but with a very classical idea about the intersection of art and life converging on an actress who barely knows how to handle her own regular life. It feels like some warmed over ideas from "Possession" were tossed into the cocktail to get Zulawski through this lean stretch of the mid 80's. The films after that... oh boy.

7. Anita: Swedish Nymph (1972)- Lars vonTrier owes somebody some royalties. And it stars a young (and barely recognizable) Stellan Skaarsgard.

8. The Fan (aka Trance) (1982)-  What begins as a somewhat harmless adolescent delusional pop-idol obsession soon turns macabre as unhinged Simone (Desiree Nosbusch) finds out the world of adults is more predatory than she could've imagined. It gives pop consumerism a new spin.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

On "Triple 9"

There's a special corner of the 'cinemaverse' for filmmakers like John Hillcoat. Bloody, unrepentantly violent and jagged, as if the viewer is running with wild packs of wolves. Just mention his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and watch your partner squirm. Or, even more alienating, track down his debut 1989 film "Ghosts...of the Civil Dead" which is as bleak and unsettling as any prison film I've seen. Having said all that, I often admire his work for the unconventional and nihilistic aura he shrouds around his vision. This same give and take is present in his latest film, the grimy and star studded police thriller "Triple 9" which not only incorporates the best of this type of film, but also cribs and cajoles from the worst.

Opening with a splendidly constructed heist in which 5 men pull off a brazen daylight bank robbery, the stakes are immediately set high as we learn that two of the men, Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie), are also police officers- which explains their technical wizardry in staying one step ahead of the responding officers. The ringleader of the calculated bunch is Michael (Chiwetel Ejifore), whose motivations for risking life and limb hinge upon the whims of Russian businesswoman Irina, played by Kate Winslet in a role that requires her to hiss and spout veiled threats because those Russian mafia types do this sort of thing. Replacing the Italian mob in the last decade or so, Russian heavies have become the new puppet masters to any respectable action movie. Forced to do her bidding, the crew is then coerced into pulling a second robbery that will provide her with the means to free her imprisoned husband back home in a Russian gulag.

Unexpectedly thrust into this mix of shifting loyalties and dutiful facades comes Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), transferred into Marcus' gang unit and placed in the highly dangerous cross-hairs of a crew desperately trying to work all the angles and come out unscathed. On the edges of all this lies Chris' uncle, played by Woody Harrelson, a detective in the major crimes unit assigned to tracking down the robbery suspects. Inside this tangled, knotted web, "Triple 9" spins and wields an array of stomach turning violence (even casually showing decapitated heads on the hood of a car as inconsequential gang related violence) and double crosses that leaves one wondering if anyone will make it out alive.

As a filmmaker, Hillcoat's vision is stamped all over the film, creating a nocturnal and under-lit seediness that drips off the screen. After all, this is a director who dared to film an enormously important fisticuffs in stark silhouette inside a Depression-era wooden bridge in his terrific previous film "Lawless". We could barely make out who won or lost... an impressionistic melee that had less to do with the plot and more about the enveloping darkness of the souls of those involved. Likewise, in "Triple 9", after the initial bank robbery, its a film engulfed in neon light, pre-dawn numbness and midnight blacks. It's the most impressive thing about the film.

What's not impressive is the suffocating and brooding "averageness" of every major character. Harrelson plays a cop consistently committed to the job, but addicted to alcohol and drugs, appearing in wrinkled suits and sweaty from head to toe. Far more interesting is the minor detective in his unit, played by bracing casualness by newcomer Michelle Ang. I would've preferred to watch an entire film based on her character going after the unchecked masculinity. Likewise, Casey Affleck's role as the good cop dangled in front of our senses as the possible sacrificial lamb barely registers as anything more than a sad face to grasp onto among the cavalcade of tattooed thugs and menacing bodyguards. "Triple 9" feels like a worn out script, borrowing liberally from every dirty cop film of the last 30 years. The moments of panache, generated by Hillcoat's unique visual flair (such as the odd camera shot barely keeping two cops in frame as they drive, instead focusing on the looming skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta) are few and far between, but when they happen, they suggest a stronger vision than the eventual narrative of people shooting people over and over in hopes of being the last man standing.