Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.3

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

The most disappointing aspect of Stefano Sollimo's sequel to Denis Villeneuve's critically acclaimed 2016 political thriller is its feeble attempt to carbon copy what made that film so great. The swagger.... the machismo... the actions of people drawing invisible lines of political aggression are all intact but what lacks in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" is a firm center to hold onto. In the original, Emily Blunt's character served as a naive audience surrogate. Out of that naivety was borne a strong woman with an equally strong moral center, desperately trying to cement herself against the corroding fissures of nationalism that develop around her. It also helped that filmmaker Villeneuve painted a morose, inky masterpiece of half shadowy images and tightly framed bodies in perfect motion. In this latest version (also written by Taylor Sheridan), the emotional core is supposed to fall onto the surrogate father-daughter relationship that develops between kidnap victim Isabela Moner and assassin chess piece Benecio Del Toro. Barely flaked together and instead choosing to focus on the maneuvers of smooth talking soldier-types (Josh Brolin and Jeffrey Donovan again), "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" establishes little empathy for the two and swings for a populist ending that feels half baked and served up just to make the audience feel good after the previous two hours of lazy border phobia and calculated violence.



Leave No Trace 

Observational and just as transient as its title, Debra Granik's latest film succeeds in the quiet moments between rudderless PTSD veteran dad Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Mckenzie as his daughter living a bohemian/exterior lifestyle. Also largely moving is the parade of weathered, seemingly naturalistic faces that dot the rugged landscape as they travel from camping spot to the next, moving further and further away from the concrete pillars of civilization. If there's anything to fault "Leave No Trace", its the fairly routine narrative that winds its way into some expected beats. Still, a good portion of the film is acute at narrowing its focus on the father/daughter duo who give weighty performances.




Three Identical Strangers 

Relying on a fairly pedantic documentary style with straight ahead personal testimonies and lackluster visual recreations, Three Identical Strangers survives not on visual grandiosity but the inherently fascinating story at the center.  Full review at Dallas Film Now


Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda 

Like so many artists, we generally understand their art is often synonymous with life. In the case of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, not only does the artist make it clear he’s still breathing because of his art, but he also wants to show us the possibilities art can reveal to the world. See this film. It’s a masterpiece. Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, Summer Edition

1) Black Water (2018)- New Dolph Lundgren/Van Damme 'actioner' that opens in most places next week. Hugely entertaining. A film that not only embraces its yesteryear B-movie theatrics, but exploits them to great effect. Lundgren is so good here in his small role. Review at Dallas Film Now.

2) Sole Survivor (1983)- Remember that great, nasty post-nuke film "Night of the Comet"? This is from the same director the year before which got him that gig. Atmospheric at times and it creates some terrific tension from its urban sprawl. Hard to deny that films like "Final Destination" and "It Follows" blatantly ripped this one off.

3) Adore (2013)- Should be waaaay more interesting than it is, especially because it deals with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright screwing each other's 18 year old sons.

4) Who Took Johnny (2014)- On Netflix. Pretty terrifying for the malicious, half-baked conspiracy theories it proposes. I spent about 4 hours after this film exploring the internet wormhole for some facts behind the events this film highlights.

5) Mortal Thoughts (1991)- Been on a bit of an Alan Rudolph kick lately. This one is pretty simplistic.... early 90's HBO style film noir with Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Glenn Headley doing their worst hawkish New York accents.

6) Vazante (2018)- If you like Bela Tarr or Cria Guervos films, this one's for you. Slow but ultimately very sad black and white film about life on a plantation in South America and the consequences of boredom and colonial rule.

7) Roads to the South (1978)- The last Joseph Losey film I'd never seen (which finally popped up on KG and CG, thank you!). Wish I could say it was worth the wait. It is a companion piece to "Mr. Klein" however, in that Yves Montand plays an exiled ex Communist brought back into the struggle after his wife dies in an accident. Flat at times, laborious at others, it does close a chapter in Losey's non American financed 70's period.

8) Hereditary (2018)- Effective horror film, but jeez people are doing cartwheels over this. I felt it a bit derivative. The best seance film? A nifty little George C. Scott number called "The Changeling". Or maybe Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Seance" which does just as much with light and shadow as "Hereditary".

9) Variety Lights (1950)- Fellini's debut film that encapsulates all the themes of his later work- a wandering sense of the journey being more important than the destination.... his fascination with creative/performance artists.... and a clinging love for the distraught and poor.

10) The Misandrists (2018)- Queer pioneer filmmaker Bruce Labruce's most mainstream work is still not for the faint of heart. It plays like a cross between a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film and a student porno. Enter at your own risk.  Full review at Dallas Film Now

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On "Kate Plays Christine"

Robert Greene's "Kate Plays Christine" is a jangled web of theories and diversions that not only brilliantly upends the very definition of "documentary", but causes one to marvel at how the boundaries of the genre can be obliterated and re appropriated so easily. That the film also works into its mechanized study touches of tried and true onerism such as an actress burrowing into a role with little abandon for her well being and "Kate Plays Christine" very likely will melt your brain.

 
The actress in question, Kate Lyn Sheil (who I first noticed in a supporting role on Netflix's "House of Cards") plays herself accepting the role of portraying Christine Chubbuck, a now infamous 70's era Florida reporter who committed suicide on air, and then traveling to her hometown researching her life and mannerisms. Greene, ever present by Sheil's side (which is the first hint that maybe his intended idea was the intense preparation all along) observes the moral and professional hurdles Sheil comes in contact with as she gets to know Chubbuck through co-workers and friends. Watching Sheil struggle with crawling into the dark mind space of a woman who found both her life and professional ambitions as unworthy of anything more than eventual public shock appeal is tremendous. Even more cringe inducing is the footage of Greene filming the fictionalized moment when Sheil as Chubbuck commits suicide on air. Draw out over an agonizing 15 minutes as Sheil continually starts, stops, fidgets and internalizes the scene, it's one of the more harrowing and perfectly realized recreations of acting I've seen in quite some time. Robert DeNiro gaining forty pounds to play Jake LaMotta has nothing on Sheil here.

As I said at the beginning, what makes "Kate Plays Christine" so energizing is just where Greene's intentions lie. If the film was slyly conceived to be what it is, then he's a master provocateur of the hybrid documentary. If all of this was happenstance and the focus of the film slowly morphed out of Sheil's true struggle with capturing the inner demons of Chubbuck after realizing she was nothing more than an undiagnosed woman with manic depression, then that makes the final product all the more shattering. Either way, "Kate Plays Christine" stands as a probing and masterful exploration of the boundaries between real and fictionalized emotion.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

An Appreciation: John Ford

Straight Shooting (1917) **½- Ford’s first still available film, most interesting for its milieu and yes, some shots of people in and out of doorways that would qualify as his visual motif for decades.


Bucking Broadway (1918) *** - Strong early effort that combines melodrama and romance as a cowboy (Harry Carey, who’d act in so many of Ford’s earliest silents) tries to marry the daughter of a landowner. Cutting back and forth between the frontier and urban landscapes, “Bucking Broadway” builds to a terrific conclusion.


By Indian Post (1919) ** - Short (only 13 minutes) trifle that plays with the prejudices of Native Americans to instigate a bumbling comedy that sees a cowboy run away with the daughter of a wealthy landowner. A if Ford didn’t get this out of his system with the previous film.

Just Pals (1920) **½ - Covers all the bases of extended melodrama, heartwarming friendships and dastardly collusion to make a hero out of the town bum and his equally downtrodden young friend.


The Iron Horse (1924) ***½ - Masterful telling of the building of the transcontinental railroad from the Great Plains to Northern California. What begins as an intimate examination between a dead father’s dream and his son’s legacy to endure that vision becomes a mosaic portrait of sweaty western living and frontier life, complete with shadowy landowners, upright workers and beautiful childhood sweethearts. It also features plenty of sweeping vistas (such as two people calmly standing amongst a throbbing horde of sheep and dour faces atop a slow moving train) and Ford’s first real handle on depth of field and panoramic landscapes that often dwarf the people in them.


Lightning’ (1925) ** - Still stuttering through amiable and ordinary narratives, “Lightnin” follows a drunkard who straightens up and flies right to help his family save a hotel built on the California/Nevada border. Yes, it’s about as hokey as it sounds, but Ford’s distrust of American elite and his overriding affection for the common man/do-gooder professional is slowly becoming a theme in these early films…. Themes that would transfer onto the American frontier in later films. Not on DVD.


The Shamrock Handicap (1926) ** - Inconsequential film except for its Irish-American milieu and personalities. Even that, though, pales when dealing with a horse jockey and his entrance into the world of American horse racing.


Three Bad Men (1926) *** - Expressionism has begun creeping into Ford’s visual style, none moreso engaging then the first appearance of the titular 3 bad men, shadowed against a cliff and overlooking the territory they aggressively hunt upon. Even better is the grand opening of the west sequence, complete with an Odessa-steps like abandoned baby in the midst of the charging horses. It’s a film that hits all the right notes of compassion, humor and thrilling action.



Hangman’s House (1928) *** - The best aspects of  “Hangman’s House”- a film which involves an array of subplots including genteel love, awol Irish soldiers seeking revenge and the dastardly bad guy Ford loved to root against-  are the allusions to the IRA and its subtle, shadowy staging of men living by a strict code of conduct brought out later in “The Informer”.


Four Sons (1928) *** - A downer of a tale about the hardships and fatality of four brothers at the outbreak of World War I, but its not a cheap or exploitive melodrama. The way in which Ford overlays the ghostly images of a mother’s four boys- eating and having fun at a dinner table as she remembers the better days- reveals the growing confidence in Ford’s visual style.


Salute (1929) * - Completely devoid of any authentic feeling of ownership or specialty, I can only imagine Ford was so engulfed with the technicality of sound that he forgot everything else. The story- about two brothers competing against one another in an Army/Navy football game- features so many diversions and lifeless anecdotes that it can be forgotten in Ford’s oeuvre. Not on DVD.


The Black Watch (1929) **½ - Adventure yarn that sees British soldier Victor McLaglen go undercover and tangle with Myrna Loy in the Arabian desert. What’s most striking about “The Black Watch” is Ford’s dispassionate mise-en-scene of soldiers opening fire on a crowd of opponents or the attention to ritual as a group of men sing songs before going to war. It’s not one of Ford’s early best, but its competent.



Born Reckless (1930) ** - When one hears modern cinema making fun of the stilted, dated dialogue of the 20’s and 30’s, “Born Reckless” surely stands as the placard for that fun. Full of lines like “you couldn’t keep your nose clean” or “I tell ya they’ll never frame me behind bars”, it’s a film that shoehorns a lot of material into its slim 76 minute running time, mostly centering on the life of hoodlum Edmund Lowe and his aversion to “going straight”. I’m sure it meant serious business in its day, but its like watching a comedy now… and Ford and company still don’t seem to have a firm grasp on the technicalities of sound and movement, which is to be expected.


Men Without Women (1930) *½ - If this film had just been about the heroics onboard the submarine in the second half, then we might have a terrific short film. Otherwise, the first half with the sailors on leave (and a film that alternates between silent and sound film) feels overtly pointless. Not on DVD.


Up the River (1930) **½ - Perhaps best regarded as the most innocent prison picture one could imagine, “Up the River” is pretty entertaining as complete fantasy comedy in the way hard nosed prisoners commingle both with each other AND the warden’s ten year old daughter, Plus, they all love baseball! Never mind the fact that Spencer Tracy escapes every prison they seem to incarcerate him in, then welcome him back with smiles and cajoles each time he’s caught. It’s best to shut off the mind and take this film as some alternate reality 1930’s comedy and just go with it.


Pilgrimage (1930) *** - Growing in emotional complexity and scope, “Pilgrimage” is a solid (almost impressionistic) tale of an elderly woman (Henrieta Crosman) traveling to France to visit the grave of her dead son during World War I. It often slides into easy sentimentality, but its soft images and mother-son dynamic that would become a staple of Ford’s cinema for years to come are intact.


The Seas Beneath (1931) ** - A submarine film that rarely goes beneath the surface, choosing instead to stay focused on the personal subterfuge that occurs on land after a group of American naval men encounter their German foes in a port town. An awkward flirtation between American George O’Brian and the sister of a German U-boat captain (Marion Lessing) only complicates things. The shots of a fixed camera on the deck of a submarine actually rising and falling beneath the water is pretty cool, though. Everything else, not so much.


Arrowsmith (1931) ** - There’s not much distinctive about this medical drama starring Ronald Colman as the titular doctor giving his life to medical research. Filmed in bland medium shot, the most exciting thing in it is the Fritz Lang-esque medical corporate office that looks like a leftover set from “Metropolis”.



Air Mail (1932) *½  - Set largely in and around a mountainous air mail plane station, Ford’s spirited view isn’t microscopic enough to allow any one character to stand out (even though there’s the usual romancing and divergent personalities) or dynamic enough to care about the final dashing plane rescue. All around a bust. Not on DVD.


Doctor Bull (1933) **½- The first of two films starring Will Rogers as an important social figure within a lazy suburban town (followed by “Judge Priest”), the folksy attitude of the entire film is whimsical but far from anything outstanding in his career.


Judge Priest (1934) *** - Better than “Doctor Bull”, despite some atrocious racism and yet another appearance by Stepin Fetchit, Will Rogers this time portrays the town judge, trying to survive personal attacks from political rivals while maintaining honesty on the bench. The final trial- lackluster in its realism of course- is out shadowed by the film’s more pointed memoir style of its writer Irvin S. Cobb and quite an odd reverie for Civil war veterans.


The Lost Patrol (1934) *** - Nifty, claustrophobic little effort that, ironically, takes place in the desert as a troop of British soldiers are cornered by a sharpshooting Arab tribe. Though it does drag in a few spots, its very fun to see Bela Lugosi in a non-horror film role and Ford manages to wring every drip of sweat and dust out of the scenario.


The World Moves On (1934) ***½ - Spanning a century in the life of one family business and their counterparts on 4 continents, Ford makes this seemingly sprawling narrative seem quite intimate in the way he focuses on the relationship between Franchet Tone and Madeleine Carroll as romantically entangled souls. Eventually broken apart by World War I (including some devastatingly staged battle scenes that amplify war is nothing but explosions and dirt), “The World Moves On” is an apt title for a film that opens and closes on a wooden crucifix.


The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) **½ - If nothing else than for its visual trickery, “The Whole Town’s Talking” stands alone in the early Ford canon. Edward Robinson plays a dual role- one as a mild mannered businessman and the other as an escaped mobster- and the ramifications their appearance has on the entire city. Mildly amusing at times but dreadfully dull at others, it’s a mixed bag.


The Informer (1935) **** - Ford’s first real masterpiece, it’s a powerhouse of borrowed German expressionism combined with the deep moral complexity that didn’t quite exist in films just yet. The heights Victor McLaglan reaches in desperation, exasperation and misguided ambition as he stumbles towards a confession falling out of him is exceptional.


Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) *** - Breezy comedy that pretty much ignores the common sense rules of how the real world actually works after such a deadly serious film like “The Informer”, this marked the final collaboration between Ford and actor Will Rogers. Sure, let’s delay a hanging to watch the boat race. Of course we can hitch an anchor to a fellow ship and they never notice until the morning. If this weren’t delineated as a parody of river life existence from the very beginning, I’d call foul.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) ***½ - Beginning on a figure that Ford would revisit later in his career (Abraham Lincoln), the film only uses his assassination as a springboard for an action adventure prison-break film that’s constantly surprising and entertaining.


Mary of Scotland (1936) *** - Far from a stiff, Masterpiece Theater style of drama, Ford’s telling of the infamous Mary Queen of Scotland tale feels modernized with 30’s melodrama, mostly because of Katherine Hepburn’s leading role as the mischievous, irreverent lady… full of acidic jabs and a natural independence from the male flotsam. Entertaining and swift moving.


The Plough and the Stars (1936) ** - Very short (just over an hour) film about the separation of man (Preston Foster) and woman (Barbara Stanwyck)through the call of duty for the Irish Army. Seeing it on a very rough print with fading audio probably didn’t do the film any justice, but it’s a relatively flat and lifeless affair.


Wee Willie Winkie  (1937) *½ - Shirley Temple has two levels of cuteness. Precocious cute and pouty cute. I can’t stand either one of them, therefore, Ford’s partnership with her as a little girl spending her days in the confines of a British military base in India (and based on a Rudyard Kipling novel) grated on me from the very beginning.


The Hurricane (1937)  *** - Partnered with the previous year’s “Wee Willie Winkie”, “The Hurricane” is Ford’s foreign adventure duo, this time charting the doomed relationships between South Pacific island natives and the British government when one of their own (John Hall) gets imprisoned for hitting a white man. Human feeling gets (literally) washed away in the second half when Ford flashes his filmmaking brawn and the titular natural disaster takes over. Impressive in theatrics, less so in its human interaction.



Four Men and a Prayer (1937) *** - The Hardy Boys-meets-Clue as four brothers try and solve the mystery of their father’s death right after being dismissed unfairly from the military. Things pick up dramatically in the second half as adventure and Third World realpolitik combine to create an action-filled whodunit. Also, Ford is yet to meet a firing squad inadvertently opening up on a crowd he doesn’t like.


Submarine Patrol (1938) *** - If one gets past the quite annoying main character (played by Richard Greene) as rich playboy turned semen just for the fun of it, then “Submarine patrol” is a solid actioner. As close to a World War II movie Ford ever made (alongside “They Were Expendable”), perhaps because he saw the brutality and savagery of it up close and personal through his own service, “Submarine Patrol” features some startling seafaring action and a cast of motley crew members that makes the whole thing quite entertaining.

Stagecoach (1939) ***½ - Much as its lauded as a masterpiece, watching it in succession with Ford’s other films, “Stagecoach” does feel like a huge leap forward in his career. Sure, the technology is better, but it’s a film whose fluid, expressive camerawork says just as much as the acting or narrative. The way in which Ford glides behind a table of people, segregated by class…. Or the jarring quick zoom onto John Wayne’s first appearance…. Or especially the Apache attack that feels weightless and implanted right in the action…. All of this exemplifies Ford leaving the shadows and adventure stories of the 30’s behind and focusing on something grander.


Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) **½ - Portrait of an iconic American figure through the generous fragments of his early life, dominated by a pro-bono case for a poor family whose two boys are accused of murder. As Abe Lincoln, Henry Fonda teams with Ford for the first time and his “gee whiz” homeliness is on full display, which negates a bit of the film’s heartiness and replaces it with undue folksiness.


Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) *** - Notable for being Ford’s first color picture, “Drums Along the Mohawk” is a sturdy but somewhat formulaic tale of Revolutionary American life with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as the virginal couple trying to adjust to frontier life, full of Indian attacks and colorful personalities. Mostly forgettable with the exception of some tremendous sound design that features the booming echoes of guns being fired among some tall trees.


The Grapes of Wrath (1940) ***½ - Cultural and social commentary aside, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a film teeming with heart, sweat and layman’s pride. Not since “The Informer” has Ford felt so attuned with the atmosphere of the times.


The Long Voyage Home (1940) ** - Based on Eugene O’Neill stories, Ford fuses them together as the crew on board a ship during World War II transport dynamite back to England. It actually sounds more exciting than it really is. Getting bogged down in consummate drinking…. Or the wish to drink…. Or the fighting between men as they drink…. Its pretty depressing human nature.


Tobacco Road (1941) *** - Quite the odd beast from Ford. Based on a play (re-written by Ford compatriot Nunally Johnson) about an impoverished family in Georgia, “Tobacco Road” plays like a farce “The Grapes of Wrath”. Hysterical acting and dubious narrative shifts eventually won me over, though, and I went with the film’s pretty crazy tone.


How Green Was My Valley (1941) ***½ - It’s hard not to initially see “How Green Was My Valley” and recognize it as a clichéd piece of family drama spanning the short lifetime of a coal mining Welsh family… then realize this is the template for such moving family dramas to come. Handled with genuine empathy and a strong sense of setting and place, it’s a film that earns its gut-punch ending of finality and lost innocence.

They Were Expendable (1945) *** - Made immediately after his return from service in World War II, “They Were Expendable” follows an array of Navy men on torpedo boats and their continual displacement as the war rages closer to them. Hewing much closer to examining the personalities and irreparable damage done to the human body during war than outright action (which there’s very little), it’s a film that’s probably more anti-war than anything else. Nicely fatalistic is the doomed romance between John Wayne and Donna Reed. In earlier Ford films, this might have had an happy ending. Not so much here.


My Darling Clementine (1946) *** - Classy telling of Wyatt Earp’s assimilation and partnership with the abrasive Doc Holliday in the crime-laden town of Tombstone. I know this is probably sacrilege, but Kevein Costner’s expansive “Wyatt Earp” remains my favorite variation on this story. Watching Henry Fonda lean back in his wooden rocking chair and twiddle his feet against the post beam is an iconic moment though.

Fort Apache (1948) **** - Besides being a visceral western, “Fort Apache” is one of Ford’s most dense efforts, tackling both the shifting façade of the west and the inefficiency of man’s dominant presence in said landscape. The dominance is embodied in Henry Fonda’s curt, by-the-book colonel who takes over Fort Apache and not only alienates young love between his daughter (Shirley Temple) and her suitor, but everyone else en masse. His deliberate adherence to old-school methods of fighting a band of Apache Indians also ends up with disastrous results. Expertly framed and paced, “Fort Apache”- like his later masterpieces “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Searchers”- dares to question the mythology of the west and the place of man within it.


3 Godfathers (1948) **½ - Good natured western, but it seemingly wears its religious allegory out pretty quickly. The sudden pivot from a straight up bad-guys-chasing-good-guys-western to paradoxical life altering discovery  is jarring for 1948. Ford overdoes it a bit in the finale however.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) ** - Perhaps this is a victim of my own lofty expectations after all these years, but its amazing how much this film doesn’t do. As a companion study to “Fort Apache” and one leader’s surreptitious finale (one in death the other in retirement) , the film registers well. As an involving narrative (or development of deeper themes) I pretty much missed the point. Lots of posturing within Ford’s Monument Valley setting but little in the way of emotional or character investment. I didn’t care one flip about any of it… or anyone.

When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) **½  - Slight comedy about a man whose posted to war duty in his own hometown. Themes of emasculation hiding behind broad comedy feel a bit out of place after Ford’s more trenchant, respectable works on World War II.

Wagon Master (1950) *** - I kind of wish Ben Johnson would’ve been the man for Ford that John Wayne became. Alas, revisionist history, but he still steals the movie as one of three cowboys helping a Mormon group of settlers traverse dangerous Indian country.


Rio Grande (1950) ** ½ - Taking place in the same universe of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”- insomuch as Victor McLaglen again embodies his role of Quincannon- “Rio Grande” suffers mostly from the derivative devices of other Ford films. Monument Valley….  U.S. cavalry solders and their squirmish with local Indians…. John Wayne posturing….. It all looks good but feels like the continuation of something else.


The Quiet Man (1952) ***½ - Perhaps it’s the Olive Films blu-ray transfer, but this film had me gasping about 5 times within the first ten minutes on its glorious beauty. The entrance of Maureen O’Hara, spying the lanky John Wayne in the distance and then slowly shuffling out of the frame, feels like a beautiful way to transcribe the immediate love/hate between the two. Outside of their tumultuous relationship (hindered mostly by O Hara’s brother played by Victor McLaglen), Ford gives preeminence to the swooning, brazen and ebullient personalities of village settled Ireland without a hint of cynicism.


What Price Glory (1952) ** - Odd combination of war movie and screwball comedy with James Cagney and Dan Dailey as two soldiers who really don’t get along, often coming to blows while their men watch on.


The Sun Shines Bright (1953) *½ - A continuation of “Judge Priest” stories with Charles Winninger in place of Will Rogers, and this one is just plain bad. It’s first half- full of awful racial stereotypes and good ‘ol boy reverie between Civil War soldiers does nothing to endear the viewer. The second half fares a little better, if only because the mood lightens a bit.


Mogambo (1953) ***½ - Outside of it adventure story background (including a safari game master and his exotic African backdrop) in which Ford feels at home with a certain type of western expansionistic atmosphere, “Mogambo” doesn’t really need that crutch as its central concept of two women (the beautiful Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner) vying for Clark Gable would have been marvelous enough on its own. Oh, to be Clark Gable.


The Long Gray Line (1955) - **** - Ford revisits one shot over and over throughout his epic portrayal of an Irish immigrant (Tyrone Power) who finds his home for fifty years as a father-figure to cadets at West Point in the early twentieth century- the shot being a dusk embattled street with people either coming or going, and someone watching intently from the porch of a house. It’s a central idea in a very powerful, sensitive film about the process of time, the futility of war and the uniquely moving surrogate family that forms due to the simple presence of a gentle figure in a landscape. Plus the relationship between Power and wife Maureen O’Hara is pure greatness. Her death gently composed in the frame of (yes, you guessed it) a doorway.





Mister Roberts (1955) **½ - Really more of a seafaring comedy as good natured Henry Fonda does moral and verbal battle with hardnosed captain James Cagney at the helm of a cargo ship, “Mister Roberts” features very little of Ford’s trademark. Perhaps because Mervy LeRoy ultimately finished the picture, the whole thing feels a bit stretched out and episodic. A young Jack Lemmon doing his thing way before old Jack Lemmon is interesting though.

The Searchers (1956) **** - Ford’s pretty much agreed upon masterpiece, it’s one of the rare films whose reputation doesn’t do it justice. I saw it for the first time when I was 14, pouring through those Sight and Sound Ten Best films of all time lists and its ingrained itself into my memory ever since. Brutal, complex and riveting.

The Wings of Eagles (1957) **½ - I suppose the first half of dick-swinging and machismo sets up the second half for John Wayne (portraying real life Navy man and screenwriter Spig Wead) to reconcile this lifestyle and settle into a contemplative state of old age. Regardless, that first half almost ruins the (much stronger) emotional catharsis. Maureen O’Hara is also wasted. I almost would’ve loved to see a film just about their tumultuous relationship, but alas, this is swinging for the fences to idolize an old friend of Ford.


The Rising of the Moon (1957)  ** - Triplet of stories that are far more engaging thanks to the Irish scenery than any real characters or storyline.


Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) **½ - What a day for Chief Inspector Gideon (Jack Hawkins) of Scotland Yard, who has to deal with crooked cops, murder and a payroll robbery all in one day. Handled deftly (if not fairly pedantic) by Ford, the film is worth watching only for his handling of the stiff, tight-lipped manner in which most British film of the 50’s and 60’s were shrouded in.


The Last Hurrah (1958) ** - Watching Spencer Tracey move methodically around the set is always a joy to behold, his frame hunched and his eyes in somber thought. He does a lot of that as a righteous politician trying to hold off the new breed of media savvy candidates running against him. Outside of his performance, “The Last Hurrah” is an especially dry and stoic affair, though.


The Horse Soldiers (1959)  *** - A return to the western after a few years of embroiling himself in personal stories of gallant men, “The Horse Soldiers” works best when examining the push-pull relationship between warrior-like Wayne and the strong headed doctor played by William Holden. Their personal conflict- as it often does in most of Ford’s westerns- provides more conflict than the seemingly suicidal Confederate ranks that continually throw themselves at the horse soldiers. Solid stuff.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960) **½ - The only reason to see this film is for Woody Strode as the pillar of a man accused of murdering a Caucasian woman. Told in hamfisted flashback as the trial plays out in military court, like most Hollywod films of this time period, its ludicrous enactment of a courtroom and perfectly scripted interruptions of “I object” or long pauses feels disingenuous.


Two Rode Together (1961) ***½ - As the titular men who ride together, James Stewart and Richard Widmark make for a compelling duo as they seek out kidnapped children from a band of Indians. Unlike “The Searchers” and that film’s seething resentment of identity and the passage of time, “Two Rode Together” is terrific because it begins in once place, meanders a bit and fleshes out its characters (and their love lives) in another, before returning to its central idea of what exactly is a “savage”. It’s a very good late Ford film that probably doesn’t get the credit it duly deserves.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) **** - There aren’t enough platitudes to extend to my very favorite of Ford’s films….. An incisive and smart demystification of storytelling, attitudes and the very foundation of Ford’s many westerns.


How The West Was Won (1962)  ***½ - Though Ford only directed portions of this alongside Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, it’s a terrifically expansive view of America shifting its priorities and ideals westward. It actually strikes quite brilliantly at the heart of themes Ford had been gestating for years and its ironic that he directed the “Civil War” portion while Hathaway and Marshall chiseled away at the more laconic and humane elements of the story.


Donovan’s Reef (1963) *** - A bit of comic relief from Ford as a New York socialite travels to a sunny island and falls in (regrettable) love with journeyman John Wayne. There are some allusions towards the discrimination of “native people”, but overall it’s a fairly forgettable exercise.


Cheyenne Autumn (1966) **½ - Ford’s last western deals with Wayne’s calvary unit making their way through stronghold Confederate country to reach a Louisiana port and sail home. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but even that revisionist magnifying glass yields little grandiosity in the film. It does its job and that’s that.


7 Women (1967) *** - As his final fictional effort, Ford lines up a dandy. Subverting his lifelong obsession with the masculine mythmaking of the West, “7 Women” focuses on, well, females as they struggle to survive an Asian invasion of a missionary. Each woman is given strong personality and the film, while not exactly illuminating as a beacon for feminine equality, gets points for never widdling down its violence or aggression towards its female protagonists.

Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (1976) ** - I’m not sur e how much of this Ford really “directed” besides placing a stationary camera on John Wayne talking mixed in with some fictional re-creations of military training, all in the name of supreme respect for Lewis “Chesty” Puller. Ad Ford’s final film, it has to be seen, there’s just not much there.





Unable to view: Upstream, Riley the Cop, The Brat, North of Hudson Bay, The Fugitive











Friday, April 13, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.2

Chappaquidick

As soon as Jason Clarke (as Ted Kennedy) mutters "I'm never going to be president" in the backseat of a car immediately after fleeing a crime scene, fears of overblown grandiosity creep into John Curran's "Chappaquidick". Thankfully, it mostly steers clear of any remaining obvious moments, settling into a drama that dares to taint the Kennedy legacy just a bit through the portrait of Ted Kennedy as someone not quite worthy of the monarchistic lineage of his saintly brothers and punitive father (Bruce Dern). The other surprise here is Ed Helms as Kennedy's best friend and trusted advisor Joe Gargan, a figure that seems to have lost the most in the scandal. I'd love to see more of him in able dramas.


Tons of new stuff at Dallas Film Now.com


Gemini- One of the year's best films.  Full review here

The Death of Stalin    Review here

 Krystal- Quite annoying for how it's precocious lead wins a beautiful woman.   Review here 

 Where Is Kyra?- As the film winds down, we know things won’t end well for Kyra and her boyfriend (Kiefer Sutherland), who reluctantly becomes involved with her affairs as well. The tone has been established from the outset. There are no big breaks for people like this. Only bad luck and obstinate bureaucracies. Full thoughts here

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Home Away From Home: John Duigan's "Flirting"

I never attended a boarding school. I never possessed the philosophical angst of young Danny (Noah Taylor). And I certainly never had a girlfriend like Thandie Newton fall for my non philosophical and angst-ridden self. Yet, having admitted all that, John Duigan's "Flirting" still manages to inhabit a space of young adulthood that feels both exaggerated and intimate.... truthful and fitfully novel.... and, above all, aligned with the pitfalls and soaring emotions of a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale whose moments both big and small feel like a universal framework for us all.


Pairing with young Noah Taylor a few years earlier with "The Year My Voice Broke" (1987), writer and director John Duigan presents their relationship as a sort of American Truffuat/Leaud. In "Flirting", Taylor plays the same character of Danny Embling, a moody and uninterested intellectual at a British boarding school, several years removed from his prepubescent sexual reckoning in that earlier film. Choosing to steer (mostly) clear of the jockish antics of his rugby playing peers, Danny instead buries his nose in a book. The only respite from the boys' daily helpings of testosterone-schoolmate-punishings and fart jokes lies in the queasy relationship of the girls who go to school across the way. Bunched together at chaperoned dances or sporting events, it's one of these anxious social outings that Danny is first noticed by newcomer Thandiwe (Thandie Newton). Their relationship grows slowly, flirting between the ears as opposites of their school's respective debate teams and then eventually as they constantly break the rules and sneak across the small body of water to steal time with each other.

Like most high school coming-of-age films, there are various fumblings, falling-outs and childish gossip that threaten to ruin their romance. An innocent letter sent from Thandiwe to Danny finds the wrong hands at one point, causing ridicule for Danny. The ever-watchful eye of school superiors makes it increasingly difficult for the pair to find time together. And, in a rare feat from a film written by a male, the prerogative gaze slowly shifts onto the women over the boys, creating indelible and curious portraits of young women grappling with many of the same insecurities and fallible thoughts as the young men. Supporting performances by a young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts provide just as much intelligence about the sensitive upheavals caused by puberty, never forgetting the fragile existence of either chromosome within the battle of the sexes.

Director Duigan would go onto a strong career of minor gems ("Lawn Dogs" with Sam Rockwell anyone?), but "Flirting" remains his masterpiece. It's a film that-besides launching a number of terrific talents- has the courage and sincerity to tackle such a common subject with varying degrees of complexity. I can't say I've ever drowned myself in the works of Kafka quite like Danny Embling, but I have experienced the acute pangs of a star-crossed relationship, living through letters and second guessing every emotion and decision about said person. All that's left now is for Duigan to continue the lives of Thandiwe and Danny after all these years.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.1

Red Sparrow


Francis Lawrence's "Red Sparrow" is just the type of spy film we deserve right now. Visually beguiling and arid in its emotions, the film takes no prisoners in the way it frankly dissects the viciousness of empty political vessels using mind and body to wage a cold war. Jennifer Lawrence- using her stardom to spin a female character both sexy and dangerous- is the draw here, but "Red Sparrow" largely succeeds because of its reluctance to play anything safe.... which was evident in the many guffaws and gasps experienced during my mature aged audience expecting a "Hunger Games"- esque escape. After the third of fourth brutal torture scene, all hope was zapped from the theater. I loved it even more, then.


 Game Night


Better-than-average, smartly constructed comedy (thankfully relatively low on the raunch factor), with an engaging cast (especially Rachel McAdams) "Game Night" is also the coming out party for Jessie Plemmons. As soon as an actor like Plemmons gets tapped to play a quirky, unhinged character like the one here, you know he's arrived. Highly self-aware but imbued with an overarching honesty despite its wink-wink humor, "Game Night" excels at most everything it attempts.


Thoroughbreds 

Praise must be given for the first two-thirds of Cory Finley's directorial debut "Thoroughbreds" as it maintains a level of formal brilliance and thematic speculation that sincerely keeps the viewer off balance. We watch as two high school friends reconnect after years of unfriendliness- perfectly played by Olivia Cook and Ana Taylor Joy- and hatch a plot that's as nihilistic and psychotic as the feelings pulsing beneath their glassy eyes. When those plot mechanisms kick in, the film loses a bit of its momentum, but "Thoroughbreds" is still a bold and unnerving exploration of the emptiness once exaggerated in so many Bret Easton Ellis novels of the 80's. 


Saturday, March 03, 2018

70's Bonanza: Operation Ogre

In the latter half of the twentieth century, cinema's attraction to the heroic romanticism and ultimate fatalism of the Wild West outlaw shifted onto the righteous terrorist. Just as committed to their brand of outlaw justice as Billy the Kid, the terrorist also served as the perfect (for better or worse) embodiment of the every-man's indignant right to fight "the man". So, it's no surprise that far left-wing filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo (who ascended to international acclaim after his 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers") would make such a film like "Operation Ogre" in which the sole burden of empathy and attention is given to a set of terrorists who meticulously planned and attacked Spanish Prime Minister Luis Blanco in 1973. In fact, their bomb was so potent that it sent the Prime Minister's car up in the air far enough to land on a building the next street over. The fact that "Operation Ogre" isn't just a radicalized political statement or transparent attempt to memorialize such men and women is a feat Pontecorvo pulls off brilliantly. In fact, I'd dare call "Operation Ogre" his best film, even better than "The Battle of Algiers" or the cultish "Burn!" starring Marlon Brando. More of a procedural thriller with some stunning shifts of time than anything else, its such a sad fact this film is rarely available on any home video format.

Starring the always fascinating Gian Marie Volonte as the leader of the Basque revolutionary group who travel to Madrid to assassinate Blanco, the name of the film is derived from the military operation assigned the mission. Of course, nothing goes as planned. Just when the group thinks they have their plan figured out, Blanco is promoted to Prime Minister, which not only alters his daily schedule but includes an influx of new bodyguards. Patiently following Volonte and his group as they audible their own plans, the film soon settles on their doom's-day-ticking-clock attempts to bury a bomb beneath one of the PM's main routes to and from church everyday.

Outside of their tense main mission, Pontecorvo throws in a couple of emotional curveballs, such as the relationship between of one of the terrorists and his wife, including one jarring narrative slip that jumps ahead in time to reveal the diminishing rewards of their violent actions and its repercussions on those who surround them. If nothing else, Pontecorvo routinely understands that the revolutionary life isn't without its mortal sacrifices.

Based on a novel by Julien Aguirre and released just 6 years after the assassination, "Operation Ogre" would be the last feature film directed by Pontecorvo before consuming himself in documentary work. It's a fitting piece. For someone who began his career championing the suspect rule of governments and the violent insurrection possible by its citizens, "Operation Ogre" reveals that his passion for violent change was unwavering.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Last Few Films I've Seen, early 2018 edition

1. Princess Cyd (2017)- Had I made time for this in '17, it most certainly would have placed pretty high on my 'best of the year' list. Gentle, knowing and heartfelt tale that slinks along with intelligence in dealing with the fumbling emotions of a 16 year old girl (Jessie Pinnick, wonderful) spending a few weeks in Chicago with her aunt (Rebecca Spence). There's no huge moments, just perfectly realized characters finding their way through this certain time together. And the speech given by Spence to Cyd in the kitchen after a party feels ten times more real and moving than the speech given by Michael Stuhlbarg in "Call Me By Your Name"..... which earned him an Oscar nomination by the way.


2. Flower (2018)- can't say much. review upcoming at Dallas Film Now. Zoey Deutch is the real shit, though.


3. The Devil, Probably (1977)- Robert Bresson's second to last film, highly regarded by most and still so hard to see today. Dry is an understatement. Watching this group of social and environmentally active group of teens sleep with each other, fall in and out of love, question God, then ultimately question themselves is not without its blessings.... it just also feels very self-serving. I love the way Bresson remains entrenched on watching hands, bodies and objects more than the faces of his characters, though. I also see where Bertrand Bonello probably drew his inspirations for last year's "Nocturama".


4. Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017). What I said about "Princess Cyd" applies here as well. I can't even recall this thing playing in Dallas last year. Maybe a midnight Alamo Drafthouse event? Regardless, it's a relentlessly hardcore exploration of the decisions made when pinned between a rock and a hard place. Vince Vaughn is amazing as the ex-boxer pinched for dealing drugs, then forced to sink lower and lower into the pits of confinement hell when given an ultimatum. It all becomes quite exploitative, but in the best way.


5. Mustang Island (2017)- One of the films I missed at last year's Dallas International Film Festival, which it went onto win the Texas Jury Prize from. Head scratching mistake if you ask me. Filmed in that deadpan, black and white early Jarmusch way, even its aesthetic screams precocious. It's story? Not much better. Macon Blair drags two buddies on a stalker-esque quest to find his recent ex-girlfriend at her beach home on the Texas coast. Of course, life lessons and new loves are earned. Everything in this effort has been done better and more sincerely.


6. Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958)- What a day for Chief Inspector Gideon (Jack Hawkins) of Scotland Yard, who has to deal with crooked cops, murder and a payroll robbery all in one day. Handled deftly (if not fairly pedantic) by Ford, the film is worth watching only for his handling of the stiff, tight-lipped manner in which most British film of the 50’s and 60’s were shrouded in.


7. Gator (1976)-  Burt Reynolds directed southern-action flick about an ex convict named, yes, Gator (Reynolds) enlisted by the feds to infiltrate and bring down old buddy Jerry Reed. The seven year old in me would have loved the opening 20 minutes of speed boat chases along the Louisiana bayou.


8. The Whispering Star (2014)- Either one likes Sion Sono's films or not. "Tokyo Tribe" anyone? The man is a true punk rocker in a long line of cinematic Japansese saboteurs. "The Whispering Star" is yet another deviation in his work. Quite slow, reflective and featuring one sequence of breathtaking visual acuity, the film tracks a robot delivering mail packages to people around various solar systems are her brief interactions with them. Though the worlds she ultimately lands on look like post apocalyptic wastelands of Earth (for good reason since Sono filmed in areas around the Fukushima power plant meltdown), the small beauty lies in their interactions that range from obscure to heartbreaking.


9. The 1517 To Paris (2018)- Very confused by this. I've liked Eastwood's efforts less and less since his masterpiece "Mystic River", and this one features the real life men who stopped a terrorist attack onboard a French train a few years back. The problem is, none of these guys can act and Eastwood chooses to begin with their friendship in grade school, which comes off just as tone-deaf and hackneyed as one would imagine. It doesn't get any better as it goes along, either.


10. Norwegian Wood (2009)- Based on acclaimed author Marukami's novel of the same name, Tran Ahn Hung brings the story of young star-crossed lovers to light with ethereal beauty and texture. Friends since childhood, the always splendid Rinko Kinkuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama react to the suicide of their best friend in different ways... ways that pull and push them together for years afterward. This is a film that reminded me of the early films of Julio Medem in the way life is messy and rude and beautiful each time we meet someone new. Not to mention, this features one FANTASTIC score by Jonny Greenwwod. Yes, even better than most of his P.T. Anderson films.




Friday, February 09, 2018

Cinema Obscura: Costa Gavras' "Shock Troops"

One of my favorite films of all time is Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" (1969). A masterpiece of murky atmosphere grown even murkier by the way a hushed betrayal shatters the once-trusting bond between comrades and lovers, it's a film that distills all the madness, loyalty and violence of the French Resistance into a seamless potboiler thriller.

If that film is the austere entry in the genre of Resistance films, than Costa-Gavras' "Shock Troops" (produced just two years prior to Melville's film) is the 1980's Cannon Films meathead production of the same events. That backhanded praise aside, "Shock Troops" is no less an important statement about the travails of France during World War II than Melville's more prestigious effort. It just goes about things in a much broader (and more violent) way like an aggressive cousin to Melville's masterpiece.

Instead of focusing on the underground (yet highly visible) people of the urban French Resistance, "Shock Troops" follows the band of the Maquis, which were the groups of armed French Resistance fighters who gave German troops the most trouble during their occupation of France. Residing in the mountainous terrain around the state and moving in swiftly, killing hordes of soldiers, bombing railroad lines and government offices, the Maquis would then retreat to their hillsides safe zones which the German military controlled little insight or strategy around. It worked for awhile. One of these swift actions opens "Shock Troops" wherein the group (including Jean Paul Briarly, Charles Vanal and Bruno Cremer) stage a brash infiltration of a prison and free the group of French men inside. One of the men, played by Michel Piccoli, comes under scrutiny by the group as to whether he's a double agent or not. Not only does his presence complicate the trust and civility of the Maquis, but it clouds their judgement as German troops slowly begin to encircle their encampment in the hillsides.

Marked by several strong episodes of violence- including the finale as the group does battle with a Panzer tank that methodically zeroes in on their coordinates- "Shock Troops" is much more yell than whisper, which ultimately sets it apart from Melville's more interior rationalization of the French Resitance's ultimate 'fait de acompli'.

However, its also a film that gives amazing honor to the story of French Resistance through its unabashed glee in gunfire and explosions. Not all of the Resistance were satisfied in subtle cloak and dagger. They were armed, impatient and just as ready to crush their occupiers as their occupiers were zealous to crush them. As Costa Gavras' action-infused early film shows, there's certainly room for both comments on this time in history on the spectrum.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Moments of 2017

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (19 years running now!) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.


- Rooney Mara listening to “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms on the headset her husband (Casey Affleck) carefully places over her head, and the way her eyes try to avoid showing the emotion welling up inside her.  “A Ghost Story”

- The casting of Peter Verby as a psychiatrist in Josh and Benny Sadie’s “Good Time”. He’s the type of real life person who would be at home in a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

- In “Call Me By Your Name”, the needle drop onto the Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way”…. the impetus to get Elio (Timothee Chalamat) onto the dance floor.

- A flash of lightning in the sky and a long, slow pan down the city landscape, eventually settling on an alleyway as a man (Denzel Washington) creeps in the shadows.  “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

- A handheld shot of a man hustling through a crowded newsroom and laying a piece of paper on the desk of a copy editor, muttering “you’ve got ten minutes”…. and then pencil begins making marks on the paper. The distillation of the urgency and intelligence of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post”


- “What is this… a compatibility test? Like what some people do with Vonnegut or “The Big Lebowski?”  Zoe Kazan in “The Big Sick”

- In Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery”, Will (Jason Segal) turning back to the woman (Rooney Mara) and child on the beach, beginning to say something when the film cuts to black and leaves us imagining what life comes next for him.

- A chimpanzee gently taking bananas from the silent hands of Jane Goodall.   “Jane”

- Really the whole performance of Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project”, but especially the way his glances and body language slowly evolves as he begins and ends a conversation with a man talking to his group of kids, culminating with an outburst of anger that’s so real, startling, humane.

- A man (Alex Brendemuhl) watches his wife (Marion Cotillard) frantically run after an ambulance and the painfully altered reality that snowballs into damning focus for both.  “From the Land of the Moon”

- A potion being dipped into the water and lifeless fish gently rising to the top.  “The Lost City of Z”

- Fred Armisen’s appearance in “The Little Hours”. One scene is enough to send this film over the top as one of the year’s best comedies.

- In “BladeRunner 2049”, Two women- one real (Makenzie Davis) and one not (Ana de Armas)- intertwining and meshing their bodies. A spectacular piece of visual trickery made all the more poignant for the ways it exudes sensuality and dare I say ‘human’ emotion.

- “First They Killed My Father”. An explosion reflected in the black pupil of a little girl (Sareum Srey Moch) and the frightening confusion that begins.

- In “Columbus”, an explanation told from behind glass, gently withheld from us as Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) describes her feelings to Jin (John Cho).


- An overhead shot of bullets ricocheting off a shield.   “Wonder Woman” and her battle for no man’s land.

- A girl, ambling slowly over to a hospital window and a young boy on the bed saying “I want to try and see to….” before his body rolls off the bed and thuds on the floor. Yorgis Lanthimos exploring the myths of the nuclear family and how easily they come undone in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”.

- The way Florence Pugh constantly squirms, writhes and bites her teeth in the background as the people around her try to ascertain the truth. Call it the ultimate bit of modernity infused into a Victorian domestic drama.  “Lady Macbeth”



- The fight in the fog and judging where the creatures are by the sound of the ‘whistle arrows’. “The Great Wall”

- The boorish way Kristen Stewart relents and tries on the harness dress after being urged on by the dresser… and then she seductively commands the screen for the next few minutes in wordless glances in the mirror at herself.  “Personal Shopper”

- The reaction of Nick Offerman to the line reading by Lee (Sam Elliot). Sci-fi schlock from the paper turned into poignant and real commentary.  “The Hero”

- Taylor Sheridan never met a row of speeding cars he didn’t like….. The swooping crane shot as four cars zoom across an Indian reservation in “Wind River”.


- In “The Lost City of Z”, several men jump overboard their small boat and the piranha attack that begins. That’s the reason they couldn’t catch fish in their nets.

- In Dee Rees’ “Mudbound”, the final voiceover from Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and the moment he sees his son peer out from behind the doorway.

- “I’m gonna create some weird shit.”    “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

- Partially obscured by a mesh screen, the thousand yard stare emitted by Connie (Robert Pattinson) from the backseat of a cop car.   “Good Time”


- Two men fighting, and then the muffled reverberating sound of a plate glass window from the inside as their bodies slap against it.  “Gold”

- The reserved, almost pathetic stare Lady Bird (Sairose Ronan) gives her mom (Laurie Metcalf) before retreating back into a dressing room and wondering if this is currently the best version of herself.  “Lady Bird”

- After spending an entire movie choking back her emotions, the way Jane Banner’s (Elizabeth Olsen)
body convulses into a wave of deep sorrow, lying on a hospital bed murmuring “she ran six miles”.  “Wind River”

- “Well, my story line’s disappearing. What. The. Fuck.” Alison Janney in “I, Tonya”

- The sunset in the sky behind Carey Mulligan as she showers for the first time in her exterior homemade bathroom.  “Mudbound”

- Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) and her mad dance illuminated by the headlights of a parked car. “Columbus”

- With the camera poised inches from her face, the way Brea laments her pain is too much to endure on that given day and is she really invisible? Luckily, her documentary gives visibility to the invisible.  “Unrest”

- And the scene of the year: after finding “never cursed” sewn into the lining of a wedding dress, the cut to a fire-lit bedroom and Reynolds (Daniel Day Lewis) seeing his mother in the corner of the room and the short but heartbreaking confession he begins to mumble…. And we thought fathers were the problem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe.   “Phantom Thread”


Welcome 2018!









Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Faves of 2017

20. The Great Wall


I have a weakness for the late period Zhang Yimou films derided by most everyone else. While lukewarm on "Coming Home", I found his 2012 Christian Bale-missionary-stuck-in-war-torn-China "Flowers of War" an especially immersive and moving marvel. The same can be said for his latest project, "The Great Wall", again starring a Hollywood star (Matt Damon) who manages to save most of China. This time it's not marauding Japanese soldiers, but marauding creatures that bellow out from underneath a magical mountain every 60 years and do battle with humans. Yes, its preposterous, but its also an extravagant and visually stunning effort that features an unending number of imaginative moments calculated to shock and awe. Yimou's roving camera, his mise-en-scene within heavily crafted CGI backdrops and his fetishistic use of color are magnetic technical attributes that save the film from being yet another internationally produced Game of Thrones knock-off hoping to recoup its assets overseas... and then score whatever bonus it can with American audiences. It's spectacle, but its a glorious one.


19. The Glass Castle 


Destin Daniel Cretton's "The Glass Castle" floored me on several levels. Emotionally, its genuine and heartfelt performances eliminated any hints of embeddd maudlin within Jeanette Walls' acclaimed memoir. Visually, its a carefully designed effort with a mise-en-scene firmly anchored to the mood and tempos of its characters. It's chaotic when the scene is chaotic.... patient when holding on the complex swell of emotions building (or being buried) within its faces... and subtly persuasive at mining the unspoken such as one shot of a young girl (Ella Anderson) framed at the far left side of a car's backseat, anxiously awaiting the reaction of her drunken father (Woody Harrelson) in the front. Adapting a cross cutting effect between time and place- focusing on the now adult Jeanette played to perfection by Brie Larson- could be disastrous in some films, yet here it works magnificently. "The Glass Castle" examines the unintentional bohemian fractures of family in a completely rewarding manner. And, anticipating the big climax between father and estranged daughter is prolonged, so when the moment does come, its impact is that much more powerful.


18. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992


The best documentaries not only provide insight and rhetoric for a specific incident, person or place, but they explain and delineate how or why that said thing came to be. Screenwriter John Ridley's film about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles not only places those horrific days at the center of his thesis, but he effectively builds a sociological blueprint for the anger, resentment and active ingredients for why such horrific days began. Like Ezra Edelman's sprawling "O.J. Made In America" from last year, "Let It Fall" examines the history of Los Angeles incrementally for a decade before the events in 1992, weaving together archival footage and some incredibly personal interviews whose full experiences with the riots are built in slowly and mysteriously until they create a panorama of grief, individualism and doomed history that hopefully will never repeat itself. 

17. It Comes At Night



 After the flairs of rough-hewn brilliance that occasionally bubbled to the surface in Trey Edward Shults' debut feature "Krisha", it shouldn't be a complete surprise his sophomore effort is so there as well. What is tantamount in "It Comes At Night" is the elongation of tension throughout the entire film, sustained by Shults' perfect accentuation of camera movement and lighting (which at times feels like its lit only by candlelight and lantern). Technical chops aside, "It Comes At Night" is also a pregnant, psychologically taut thriller that posits the idea of mankind's Armageddon as rendered through two sets of families in an isolated part of the country learning to trust, compromise and simply live together as an undefined sickness ravages the unlucky ones. Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott and Kelvin Harrison Jr. all give tremendous and tightly screwed performances. At one point towards the end, I found myself holding my breath as the consequences on screen tumble towards an inevitable outcome of confusion and violence. It's quite unlike any end-of-the-world scenario imagined by Hollywood in some time which makes it all the more joyful to behold.


16. Wonderstruck 

The absolutely stunning recreation of New York City circa 1927 and 1977 alone would be enough to praise Todd Haynes' magical ode to childhood. But his latest film goes even deeper than that, opening a playful pandora's box of cosmic attachment between a young girl (Millicent Simmonds) and young boy (Oakes Fegely) both exploring the same dusty corners of the city (and its museums) fifty years apart. How they're connected (one story told in silent black and white and the other funky fluorescent) slowly weaves into focus with forceful magic realism, culminating in a finale that's both cathartic and tonally perfect with Brian Selznick's original source material. At its core, "Wonderstruck" is a kid's movie, but Haynes makes it feel vital and nostalgic at the same time, fit for both the ten year old and eighty year old. After all, its a film that says the past is on constant repeat like a record player skipping over and over. It's bold, moving and well, wonderful.


15. Karl Marx City 


Not only does Petra Epperlein's documentary shine a small light onto the cloistered history and political definitions of the East German Secret Police force (STASI) of the 70's and 80's, but it's also a highly personal exploration of her family's own hushed history during the same time. How these two spheres of time and place interact with each other is the central mystery. Intensely moving one second when Epperlein films her own family trying to come to terms with their father's mysterious suicide years ago, and coldly historical the next when interviewing ex STASI agents and how the compartmentalization of state always seemed to overrule their own better human judgement, "Karl Marx City" is the perfect example of utilizing a movable camera to peel back the layers.... no matter how painful they may be.


14. mother!
 

Go-for-broke cinema. No matter how one chooses to interpret Darren Aronofsky's parable of a tortured woman (Jennifer Lawrence) slowly going insane in a large old house when creatively-stifled husband (Javier Bardem) continually infringes on their partnership, "mother!" is daring and inciting. I choose to read it as a guttural feminist howl as every tiny recess of Lawrence's mind (including jealousy, paranoia, resentfulness and abandonment) is displayed- literally- onscreen. "mother!" represents a harrowing dissolution of family and self, eventually exploding into a carnal out-of-body trip through the violent dissonance of time where every mother's horror comes to inflict pain. Losing sons during war... losing daughters to carnivorous men.... and especially losing yourself in the midst of it all.



13. Ex-Libris


 Frederick Wiseman's 45th feature is yet another typically humanistic and magnificent look at an institution, its inner workings and all its vital tangents. Peeling away the layers through seemingly innocent events- board meetings, dinners, social events, community outreach programs- "Ex Libris" gives all of these things almost holistic observation. He doesn't judge. He doesn't discriminate. All types, races and genders are shown to be part of living organism known as the New York Public Library system. Through his now customary style of establishing shots and then (seemingly) random events recorded like a fly-on-the-wall, Wiseman has delivered another monumental achievement in his soulful exploration of our modern world and the beating hearts and racing minds withinit it.


 12. Columbus


Like Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" trilogy or Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy", director Kogonada's "Columbus" belongs in that rarefied category of film that works on a different level. Driven by two of the year's absolute best performances by Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho, "Columbus" is a film beautifully attuned to the intricacies and rhythms of two people simply getting to know each other. It doesn't play out like your typical May-December romance. Its way too smart for that. This is a hushed, almost reverent character piece about two people finding each other at the exact moment in their lives when they probably both need each other the most. It's a film that largely flew under the radar, and its a shame because it deserves all the acclaim and more.


 
11. Blade Runner 2049


What struck struck me most intensely about Denis Villeneuve's sequel to Ridley Scott's trendsetting 1982 film is it's stillness. From the opening scene, the emphasis isn't squarely on action set pieces (although when those happen, it's the quiet that makes them explode against the senses) but the search for meaning in a dystopian world where the most precious vestige of reality is a miraculous human birth. I sound like a broken record as I've said for three years straight now, but Villenueve is working a different level from most filmmakers, completely attuned to the mechanics of a somewhat rickety science fiction idea and how to make it seem relevant in our current world of eroding self and confusing virtual realities.


10. The Post
  


 And to think this is the film that Steven Spielberg just decided to make quickly while awaiting production on another huge blockbuster effort next year. What remains is a crackling and riveting old school journalism picture that grinds everything down to its essence. There's no fluff.The film looks and feels traditional. It follows some fairly routine notes. However, "The Post" succeeds in the way it rhymes with determination and intelligence. Simply following a man as he hustles through a newsroom and then leaves a piece of paper at the hands of a copy editor and tells him he's got 10 minutes to fix it.... well its a retro effort that speaks loudly to this once journalism major's heart. And Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are pretty good too.


9. Bomb City 


  Jameson Brooks' feature film debut is a rocket of visual panache and angry narrative. A grungy Texas true crime bombshell, this description still doesn't quite do the film justice. Based on the story about the violent collision of two sects of West Texas highschoolers in 1997, "Bomb City" is highly reminiscent of lost-and-confused-kids tales such as "Over the Edge" (1979) or the early films of Nick Gomez such as "Laws of Gravity" (1993). As the tension between the groups of preppy football players and punk rock outcasts festers, the film builds to a simmering and raw display of violence that's genuinely unsettling. Expertly made, shot and scored, "Bomb City" was the most electric film at the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival. Watch out for it.


8. 20th Century Women


 Mike Mills' "20th Centruy Women" feels like an achingly real memoir about adolescence told not through the subject's eyes, but through the prism of the people around him whose voices and perspectives are given equal traction. At first, the film feels ragged and episodic, but it slowly gels into a magnificent ensemble full of life, fragility and casual wisdom. The beauty resides in its raggedness. Even though the women of the title (Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning) are given moments of resplendence in the way they shuffle, dance, worry, react and interact with each other, Mills' screenplay and direction belie a gentle touch on everyone involved. It's also a film that understands the textures of an era in the way he flashes black and white photos to subliminally relay faces and images. And, just like a great novel, there's pain and reality in the way each person interjects their fate in voiceover, explaining future and past in one tumultuous gesture. It not only emphasizes the tangential nature of life, but breathes humanity in the present.


7. The Salesman


As he did in "The Past" and "A Seperation", Asgar Farhadi takes a simple disturbance in the relationship of a married couple and and spins it into a dizzying exploration of not only their personal interaction, but their place in Iranian society. "The Salesman" is a film that works incrementally, slowly revealing and uncovering layers with precision. I'm sure if I were a bit more familiar with the caveats of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" -whose plot device mimics the couple in the Farhadi's as they're actors rehearsing said play- I'd be even more impressed with the film. Part revenge-drama and part meta-cinema about two people coping with anger and embarrassment both on-stage and off, "The Salesman" is a riveting addition to Farhadi's magisterial body of work so far. 

6. Phantom Thread


Psychologically venomous. Perversely manipulative. Elegantly composed. All of these things accurately describe Paul Thomas Anderson's latest endeavor. While it, at times, feels like the most mature and visually repressive (in a good way) film he's ever done, its also his most radical in the way his couple- famed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) and plucked-from-obscurity Alma (Vicky Krieps)- dance and maneuver through a relationship fraught with hidden personal demons, controlling personalities and hints of dominatrix. It's riveting and complex and confusing all at the same time. And when will we ever learn nothing good happens at a New Year's Eve party in a PTA film?


5. Personal Shopper


Sometimes, hype ruins a film for me. When I finally saw Olivier Assayas' "Personal Shopper" in the spring of '17, it's incredible word of mouth since Cannes the previous year was overwhelming.Thankfully, "Personal Shopper" exceeds expectations. Starring Kristen Stewart in a restless, frazzled performance that makes her tenuous connection to the afterlife that much more electric, Assayas spins his drama in so many directions that it could fail at any one of them, but doesn't. Part metaphysical ghost story, part murder-mystery and part travelogue, "Personal Shopper" ultimately becomes a pregnant examination of all these genres. It also has something magnificent to say about the transience of life. As the titular personal shopper, Assayas has cast Stewart as the anonymous presence who shops and supplies clothing for a famous celebrity in Paris. Stewart hates the job, and she's stuck emotionally as well, waiting for a sign from the afterlife from her recently deceased brother. Problem is, something else attaches itself to her while playing in the wold of shadows. "Personal Shopper" is startling, perplexing, mischievous and subtly chilling.


4. Dunkirk



As he's so masterly done since his debut feature almost twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan's penchant for the manipulation of time features prominently in his WWII feature, "Dunkirk". Literally suspending the rigors of war across three distinct and overlapping timelines (land, sea and air), it's a technical gambit that, in other hands, could be problematic. However, in Nolan's radical conceptualization, "Dunkirk" is essentially a silent film with sporadic bursts of dialogue that imposes the idea of time being the strictest enemy against his relatively anonymous cast of men desperately running away (and towards) the waning vestiges of combat. Refusing to carve out a central figure of empathy (although Tom Hardy's ace fighter pilot comes the closest thing to a hero the film has, including a momentous bow), "Dunkirk" is even more radical for the way it drops us in the midst of war and allows us to experience the waves of anger, desperation, intelligence, cowardice and loyalty that ebbs and flows over its young men facing a dark hour of the war. I find this more honest and revealing than so many other war films that impose a facade of heroism on its characters. In a war that spanned so many years and re-wrote both the internal and external geography of so many men, women and landscapes, "Dunkirk" feels all the more courageous.
 
3. Lady Bird

  I think the moment Greta Gerwig's lovingly detailed and emotionally attuned coming-of-age masterpiece "Lady Bird" completely wrecked me is the moment Saoirse Ronan finds a handful of crumpled papers in her luggage... placed their surprisingly by her father (Tracy Letts) to let her know the complicated and unsung emotions her mother (Laurie Metcalf) was never able to convey. The same type of thing happened to me once..... a letter of compassion, remorse and half-spoken truths written by my parents at a crucial age in my life. I imagine people will find other select moments within Gerwig's film that relate to their own confused, tumultuous experiences in life which is exactly why "Lady Bird" feels more like a communal memoir than a single film. There's so much tiny beauty and personal affectations riddled throughout "Lady Bird" that it becomes a monumental ode to a certain time in life where everything feels exaggerated and explosive. And its performances are so perfectly realized and its mood so assured that it speaks volumes about actress turned director Gerwig and her natural ability to coax something at once personal and universal. I could gush about this film for days.


2. Wind River

 
With three efforts in a small amount of time ("Sicario", "Hell or High Water" and now "Wind River"), writer-director Taylor Sheridan is slowly bringing intelligence back to the action thriller. While stepping behind the camera for his sophomore film in "Wind River" and lending only his writing abilities to the other two, a clear pattern of sublime understanding for complex characters in a deadly, shifting and unrelenting environment is quite clear. Stacked with a robust cast full of sensitive performances,
part of the film's poetic success- besides its highly attuned care to make every bullet and punch resound with a thunderous thud- are the quiet moments interspersed throughout. The conversations had throughout "Wind River" are often just as incisive as the action. A quiet moment between Jeremy Renner and FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen- when he explains why he's doing what he's doing for her- is one of the seminal moments of the year in film. Likewise, the way Olsen bottles and chortles up her emotions for a good majority of the film- finally allowing them overtake her in the penultimate scene- is so moving because its timed perfectly to allow the breathless, swooning violence of the previous few scenes gently settle over her. Like Emily Blunt shaking and washing the blood out of her hair in "Sicario", its okay for women to cry in Sheridan's universe.... just not when the shit hits the fan or when other people are around to judge your frazzled self.

1. The Lost City of Z



 In the films of James Gray, nothing comes easy. Survival is often sought at a high price. Walloped in deep shadow.... or inky blacks of a midnight trainyard.... or the halcyon golden of a cramped New York City tenement... or especially in the oppressive and humid jungles of South America, his films are a litmus test for the human experience. In his latest film, "The Lost City of Z" (adapted from the book of the same name by David Grann), his survivalist instinct manifests itself in a literal uncharted adventure that sees British officer Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) braving the depths of the Amazonian jungle and getting lost both in body and spirit. Gorgeously framed and edited, impeccably acted and featuring a classicism whose power is often overwhelming, I find it hard to believe Gray can ever top himself after "The Immigrant" (2014). Though it bombed theatrically and at festivals that film too was a masterpiece of fragility and trapped emotions in the visage of Marion Cotillard's single immigrant female status. I love that film with no bounds. And now, "The Lost City of Z" has made me love something even more rabidly.



Honorable mentions: The Little Hours, Things To Come, I Am Not Your Negro, Wonder Woman, BPM (120 Beats), Roman J. Israel Esq, The Big Sick, Atomic Blond, Ingrid Goes West, The Bad Batch