Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Current Cinema 22.1

 Petite Maman


Whether one interprets Celine Sciamma's latest film as grounded science fiction time travel fantasy or something much more innately interior, it's still a powerful film of simplicity and genuine heart. Working with child actors can be dicey, but in Sciamma's capable hands, "Petite Maman" quickly melts any precocious waves in the very beginning as young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) wanders around the assisted living home where her grandmother has just died and sweetly says goodbye to everyone. From there, Nelly holes up in the dead woman's house as her mother (Nina Meurisse) initially tries to deal with the loss by packing, but subsequently disappears and leaves young Nelly to fend for herself and interpret her swirling emotions with her father (Stephane Vrupenne) who probably understands even less. Within this tepid space of loss and confusion, Nelly stumbles upon a girl playing in the woods (played by real life sister Gabrielle Sanz) whom she soon comes to realize is her mother at that age. The joy of "Petite Maman" doesn't require the viewer to be dazzled by its metaphysical conceit. Sciamma wants us to feel and experience (as she has in so many of her exquisite films) loss, death, wonder and adolescence in equal measures, and in its compact running time, the film magically does so. And there's a needle drop towards the end of this thing that just took my breath away. One of the year's best films.


Happening

Audrey Diwan's "Happening" follows- in rigorous attention- a young girl's (Anamaria Vartolomei) attempt to seek an abortion in 1960's France. We never see the sexual encounter that leads to young Anne's desperate search, which makes the film all the more compelling. "Happening" isn't concerned about the fleeting pleasures of lust or the act of sexual experiences, but with the hard and immovable barriers placed around women in a not-so-distant supposedly progressive society. As Anne, Vartolomei is superb and Diwan's control over the mood and tone of Annie Ernaux's source material doesn't make for easy viewing, but in the light of recent backwards events here in our present, it makes "Happening" all the more urgent.

 

Montana Story

Filmmakers David Siegel and Scott McGehee have a varied career. Starting in the early 90's with the no budget body invasion "Suture", helming the eerily unnerving thriller "The Deep End" with Tilda Swinton in the early aughts and then working sporadically during the last decade, nothing really points to the majestic crescendo that "Montana Story" fills the viewer with. Not that they're bad filmmakers, but their latest is so full of subtle life and overwhelming vistas that it doesn't quite gel with any of the quirky, hard-scrabbled indies they've created in the past. I'm sure having Hayley Lu Richardson as your co-lead helps as well. A boiling family drama played out against the windswept beauties of the Montana mountain range, "Montana Story" looks at the curdled relationship between a sister (Richardson) and brother (Owen Teague in a role as equally good) dealing with the traumas of their past over the deathbed of their dying father. Yes, the set-up sounds familiar and the type of slowly simmering fireworks display that's launched a thousand indies, but "Montana Story" is different. Siegel and McGehee have painted their film with vivid supporting performances- especially that of hospice aid Gilbert Owuor)- and poignantly sketched secondary characters- like that of Eugene Brave Rock- that the film takes on an unrehearsed sense of acceptance and gravity. And when the emotional pay off comes between brother and sister, "Montana Story" burns with a pithy truth, and its then released in a heartbreakingly sweeping image of true freedom for everyone (and animals) involved.



Tuesday, May 03, 2022

The Last Few Films I'v Seen, Spring '22 edition

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) - I went into Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's "Everything Everywhere All At Once" skeptical of the adoring buzz, but after the first hour, I began to feel myself crumbling to the film's sweet energy before collapsing into an emotional mess at the finale. This is an exuberant celebration of family, inclusion,and film genre itself as it marches forward with it's head spinning tale of multiverses and hot dog fingers. Led by the amazing Michelle Yeoh (with heartbreaking supporting turns by Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu), The Daniels have created a modern answer to the iconic, trippy, and melancholy past works of Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") or Julio Medem ("Lovers of the Arctic Circle") with a film that stretches the concept of love and acceptance across a spectrum of space and time.... and come out the other side with a beautiful rendition of what makes us human.

2. The Lodger (1927) - Early Hitchcock that, while it features the pregnant ideals that would mature in most of his best thrillers, that's the most interesting thing about it.

3. Uppercase Print (2020) - "The perpetrator may live close by. Or they may live far away".

Taken from transcripts of the Romanian Securitate as they investigated the sudden appearance of chalk graffiti around the city in mid 1981, Radu Jude's "Uppercase Print" is an intellectual examination of both a time and place where liberty needed to be called upon as a dying idea. Interspersing governmental films, weird musical interludes and VHS images of the country (complete with bad VCR tracking issues!) amongst a theatrical reading of the now released investigation notes of the graffiti that eventually ruined the life of a young student, "Uppercase Print" begins as a dryly humorous effort before shifting into an especially acrid portrait of oppressive nationalism. The above quotation is from the crack investigative reports of the secret police and Jude's film initially seems like a comedy of communistic generality. Needless to say, things turn very dark, formally assured and completely heartbreaking by the end. I haven't seen a few of Jude's other pointed mixed-media documentaries about his home country, but after this one, I look forward to diving into them.

4. The Long Haul (1957) - Diana Dors. Wow. Not sure that her attraction to Victor Mature is warranted, but this is a sharp (and under seen) Brit noir, part fatalistic drama and one-third "Wages of Fear".

5. Satan's Brew (1975) - Probably one of the more 'extreme' Fassbinder films where a creatively blocked poet murders people, screws any woman who moves and lives with his screaming wife and dead fly collecting brother. For Fassbinder characters, its his most exaggerated clique and one that I found to be repellent and compulsively watchable at the same time.

6. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) - Sure, Nicholas Cage pokes lots of fun at himself and that's enjoyable in small measures, but this action comedy bored me more than anything else. I kep hoping it'd turn into a "Bowfinger" like commentary on itself.

7. Ambulance (2022) - Garret Dillahunt, awesome. Everything else, not so much, I understand going in that it's Michael Bay, and there are some gloriously conceived tracking shots, but please let the logistics breathe a little. Still, that's obviously not his style.

8. Law of Desire (1987) - Digging into some of Almodovar's early film output, and this is his best so far. Kinky when it needs to be, immensely funny at other times and a fantastic finale. Don't we all wish Antonio Banderas kept making Almodovar films?

9. Codename Cougar (1989) - Zhang Yimou's debut film (co-directed with Yang Fengliang) is a minor thriller about a hijacked plane that's forced to crash land in between two non-communicative governments (Taiwan and China) and the military action to free its hostages. Most notable for a young Gong Li and the final fifteen minutes that serve as a beautifully rendered precursor to Yimou's next decade of filmmaking and his elegantly composed images and color.

10. All the Old Knives (2022) - A subtle spy thriller throwback with conversation rather than commotion. Reviewed here.


Monday, April 11, 2022

No One Gets Out of Here Alive: Abel Ferrara's "Alive In France"

Two things are made incredibly clear in "Alive In France", Abel Ferrara's documentary about his overseas promotional tour with his band while attending a retrospective of his films; first, he scratches together music with just as much abandon as he does film making. From the way he pieces together various drummers in each city to how he vigorously commands the light show at each club, Ferrara is an alpha auteur in every sense. Secondly, the documentary fits perfectly with his late career work of quieter, more reflexive pieces of cinema that act as love letters to both the creative process and the people he's chosen to align himself with. As he answers one patron in a Q&A session, the New York of his older films doesn't exist anymore, so why should he continue making films about gangsters? Well, "Alive In France" is still a Ferrara film, beating with the hard-scrabbled heart of his previous films but tinged with a sense of nostalgia and passion for his latest role in life. It makes him immensely happy (despite the pressures of performance) and it's a film that makes us incredibly happy as well.

Following Ferrara and his musical pals Paul Hipp and Joe Delia (both creative partners for the past 30 plus years in either acting roles or compositional crew) as they perform a number of shows across France, "Alive In France" doesn't boast much more story than that. The film shows us the boyish interaction between the trio, introduces their wives (Cristina Chiriac) and Ferrara's child into the mix (whose becoming quite the mainstay in recent Ferrara films) and observes as they bounce from Toulousse to Paris playing for receptive- and not so receptive- audiences. Of course, the audiences come because its Abel Ferrara, hounding him for autographs on "Bad Lieutenant" posters and wanting to take a "serious" picture with him. But beneath his demure attitude- Ferrara is always accommodating even if he appears about to blow his top- the film is most productive in revealing the hound dog attitude he puts into playing in a band. Every street encounter results in him handing out a flyer for his upcoming gig. Every radio interview ends up with his questioning their legitimacy in really advertising. And an impromptu stop at a local film school has most of the students brushing him off, in which the camera captures an impressively ironic moment as Ferrara walks away, not in anger but in reflective reverie identifying with them when he was a brash student.

And then there's the music. Much of the film lingers on the band's sweaty style of Rolling Stones-knock offs. And even if Ferrara is probably the weakest member of the group, "Alive In France" glides along with Hipp's rendition of his music from Ferrara's "China Girl" (1987) and the vibes of Delia's soundtrack contributions. Though their shows are interspersed with clips from Ferrara's films (in case anyone forgets who he is), the documentary is alive with their creation. Whether it's visual or sonic, doesn't matter. It makes us realize that artistry is what gives Ferrara breath.... no matter where he resides.


Thursday, February 24, 2022

Moments of the Year 2021

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 (now in its 23rd edition) 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.

 

After efficiently taking down a guard, the way Elena (Florence Pugh) struggles and grunts to move the body. Superhuman ability juxtaposed with real humanity.  “Black Widow”


The way a woman (Marion Cotillard) gently buries her face in the shoulder of her lover (Adam Driver) as he sings to her. One of the few emotionally resonant moment between a hurried romance in Leos Carax’s bonkers “Annette”

 

“Shiva Baby” and the sly little smile given as two women hold hands in the backseat of a mini van

 

Lady Di (Kristen Stewart) playing a game with her children by candlelight in “Spencer”.  One of the few times she’s not vibrating with angst in Pablo Larrain’s masterful film



The subtle (but seismic) shift as Vicky Kreps wakes up and says “oh hi Anders” in “Bergman Island”. In a year of prism box films about filmmaking and finding oneself within the camera’s images, Mia Hanson-Love’s effort is startling and beautiful.


In “The Lost Daughter”, the thrust of a hat pin, almost imperceptible, and the way it jars Olivia Colman back into her reality of broken motherhood.



“Oh cool, ma, a hamburger!”   “The Many Saints of Newark

 

The running joke of why a three star general would charge everyone for White House snacks. The world may be ending but it reeeaaally bothers Jennifer Lawrence.   “Don’t Look Up”



Harriet Sansom Harris and the way “Licorize Pizza” holds on her face in a jazzy, scene stealing performance as a talent scout who seems to control the world at her desk

 

The way Bob Well’s voice cracks as he talks about his son’s suicide.  The weaving of fact and fiction become something cathartic in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland”



Wesley Snipes and his walk.  “Coming 2 America”



Sly and the Family Stone taking the stage in “Summer of Soul”

 

An editor’s burial.  “The French Dispatch”


In the middle of a shouting rant on live television, a scientist (Leonardo DiCaprio) momentarily knocks his glasses askew…. And then keeps on going. Whether it was a gaffe or scripted, it lends a moment of unhinged passion to things.  “Don’t Look Up”


With a dissonant Jonny Greenwood score, the long shot as it follows Gary (Cooper Hoffman) inside and around a promotional event, eventually ending up with him being tackled and hauled away by the police for murder. “Licorice Pizza”




Thursday, February 17, 2022

Cherry Blossoms and the Trials of The Makioka Sisters

Kon Ichikawa's "The Makioka Sisters" trades on alot of the same sentiments that made Ozu such a beloved figure in international cinema. It's a film that concerns itself primarily with the task of finding suitable husbands for two of the 4 titular sisters... something that drove so many of Ozu's efforts about the nuclear family and its important formation. And while Ozu deserves his place in the echelon, Ichikawa has worked a bit more in the margins and toggled through all types of genre. And while no one is going to accuse him of stepping on Ozu's toes in subject matter, in my opinion, "The Makioka Sisters" is better than anything ever produced by him.


Genuinely humane and bitingly funny, "The Makioka Sisters" does involve four of them, but it eventually narrows its view on the two youngest- indecisive but independent Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and volatile, brash Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa). The two older sisters Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma) and Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) spend most of their days trying to find suitors for both, but the film underlines something deeper than arranged marriages. That the Makioka family is well off (but often not as important as the male suitor's families lined up) is a central theme, but as the film travels in years after its starting point of 1938, their family declines. Add to that young Taeko runs off with a bar owner when her real love dies a peasant's death because he couldn't get surgery in time and Yukiko demures any advances from any established suitor, and Ichikawa's adaptation makes a strong case that the family is far more liberal and free spirited than the aristocratic frame they're often poised within. They want to conform, but young Yukiko and Taeko certainly have other ideas.

Full of wonderful, quickly edited reaction shots (mostly from the family's help in young Oharu played by Yukari Uehara) and a dinner meeting that carefully frames everyone in uncomfortable banter, "The Makioka Sisters" is also one of Ichikawa's most humorous efforts. Listening to a suitor ramble on about his work in aquatic reproduction and then hearing Yukiko turn him down with "I'm not a fish" gently underscores the admiration that slowly builds for these four women throughout the film. They have personalities. They grow on us like an expansive intimate epic should. And the slow puncture of Japanese cultures and mores feels like something revolutionary in the hands of a master director like Ichikawa.

Released in 1983, "The Makioka Sisters" (only 1 of his 93 films spanning from the late 30's until 2006) also uses color brilliantly. From a face bathed in red light inside a photography production room to the sickly green hue of a corner bar, it's a film that sees a purpose in each designation. Of course, there's the obligatory cherry blossoms as well. In a scene that bookends the opening and closing images, time has passed and life has been altered. But luckily, there's no great sadness. No one has died and the world is still spinning, although Yukiko and Taeko are at vastly different paths in their lives. And even though some melancholy has settled, "The Makioka Sisters" proves that even minor shifts can have tremendous impact.

Monday, February 14, 2022

My Fav Movies of 2021

 For full descriptions, please visit this list that published last month here at Dallas Film Now

 

13. Procession, directed by Robert Greene

12. Lily Topples the World, directed by Jeremy Workman

11. Shiva Baby, directed by Emma Seligman

10. Quo vadis Aida?, directed by Jasmila Zbanic

9. The Card Counter, directed by Paul Schrader

8. No Sudden Move, directed by Steven Soderbergh

7. Summer of Soul, directed by Questlove

6. Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain

5. Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau

4. The World To Come, directed by Mona Fastvold

3.  Bergman Island, directed by Mia Hansen-Love

2. Wife of a Spy, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

1. Licorice Pizza, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Monday, January 10, 2022

Retro Perspective: The Best Non 2021 Films I Saw in 2021

 

Honorable Mention:  Bloody Kids (1980), directed by Stephen Frears - Stephen Frears' film about two young boys (Richard Thomas and Peter Clark) surging through the nocturnal wasteland of new-wave dead end Essex, England after a prank goes horribly wrong is a masterpiece of anarchic energy. With a propulsive soundtrack that swaggers from inspired spaghetti-western theatrics to thudding heavy metal and a camera that swoops and glides around its characters with breathless energy, "Bloody Kids" captivates from the very opening. It only gets better when one of the young boys hooks up with a group of older men and women (led by the manics of Gary Holton) and the film sinks into an orgy of anti-establishment nose thumbing and petty criminality. Made for television and released in 1980, this is a film that deserves a rediscovery for its nervy ambition in representing the nihilistic attitude of punk rock Britain in the late 70's. For the record, the cops (and supposed adults) in this film don't get off easily either.

 

10. A Special Day (1977), directed by Ettore Scolla - Taking place over the course of a single day, "A Special Day" soon dispenses with every other character besides housewife Sophia Loren and writer Mastroianni as their crowded apartment building neighbors disappear into the streets to wave and cheer Hitler and Mussolini. The apartment building is empty, except for a solitary man working in his apartment directly across from Loren's view. When her pet bird escapes his cage and flies to his windowsill, the man and woman meet, talk, flirt and exchange ideas about the maelstrom of history swirling around them. While she chose not to go because she simply doesn't care about Italy's political strategy, he can't go anywhere for reasons that will become crushingly obvious before the end

Loren and Mastroianni, who've been paired so many times before, have a casual elegance about them as they come together and fall apart, their dialogue rolling between them with the ease of professionalism both continually exhibit in all their work. Mastroianni, especially, is tasked with a conflicted character, at once attracted to Loren for her ideals and then forced to confront emotions that are hidden behind his true self.... emotions that have him writing with one hand and keeping a pistol close by with the other. And Loren, in the final image as she watches something across the courtyard, gives a full performance that suggests an alternate life would suit her perfectly. From its magical opening shot to its final shadows of people being led away to nefarious futures, Scolla's seemingly meet-cute romance feels like the template for Richard Linklater's "Sunrise" trilogy and so many others to come.


9. Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (2019), directed by Gu Xiaogang - Visually soft like feather one second and then emotionally draining the next, Gu Xiaogang's "Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains" takes the generational storytelling of Edward Yang and the visually intricate mise en scene of Hou Hsiao Hsien and creates a masterpiece of an effort. Serene locations play host to three generations of a family as they deal with the troubles of life (i.e. love, death, and gambling), but the magnificence of the film lies in the way its filmmaker frames everything. Subtle and complex long takes suspend time while real connections are made between people and the landscape's ethereal beauty is the painting in which they wander around in. It's a wonderful film that shows and tells the small sacrifices of life.


8. A Poem is a Naked Person (1974), directed by Les Blank -  Rarely shown outside of personal events hosted by the filmmaker himself for more than 40 years, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" only really saw the light of day in 2015 and 2016 after Blank's death, when it was remastered and released through Criterion with the generous support of Blank's son and the musician/subject Leon Russell himself. What emerges in this crusty document of early 1970's hazy bohemian atmosphere is a blast. Darting from a wedding of Russell's band member hosted in his very Southern gothic mansion to interviews with an entertaining man who eats glass at an Oklahoma air show, "A Poem Is a Naked Person" is just as weirdly poetic as its title suggest. One does get a ton of Russell's earthy alt-country/rock music (and even more cameos from friends as diverse as Eric Anderson, JJ Cale and Willie Nelson), but the intention of the documentary is to replicate a time and place not through aggrandizement, but a down-and-dirty synthesis of creative artistry and all the weird freedom that comes with its boozy, carefree lifestyle. I can only imagine the reaction if Les Blank's "A Poem Is a Naked Person" had actually been unleashed on the movie-going public when it was finished in 1974


7. The Taste of Violence (1961), directed by Robert Hossein -  One of my favorite directors to discover over the past few years has been actor-director Robert Hossein. Producing a string of low-key thrillers and bastardized westerns with nary a hint of release on any video format (or streaming) here in the US, it's somewhat thrilling to continue finding small gems like this, as if I'm the only one who knows about them. This 1961 western tracks with the rest of his work, barreling though a variety of themes such as the almost wordless anti-hero Hossein himself plays, a Stockholm syndrome kidnapping, and superfluous camera moves that feel needlessly pompous and so freaking perfect at the same time. Hossein plays Perez, the leader of a band of Mexican outlaws who kidnap the president's daughter (Giovanna Ralli) and then tear themselves apart with jealousy and greed over her return to other revolutionary forces. Often filmed with searing landscapes behind them and never afraid to shy away from horrifying tableaux (such as a group of men hanging alongside a cobblestone street like heavy pinatas), "The Taste of Violence" is a western quite unlike any other.

 

6. House of Hummingbird (2018), directed by Kim Bora - Kim Bora's three hour portrait of a young girl's navigation of her pubescent life is tender and evocative, none moreso than the lengthy scene in which Eun-Hee (Park Ji Hoo) dances and pounds her feet on the floor, partly out of frustration but mostly because it's the only time she can steel herself from the emotional volcano of the world around her. She drifts in and out of friendships, finds first love, and deals with the crushing bureaucracy that takes her favorite and inspirational teacher (Kim Sae-Byuk) away from her in the blink of an eye. "House of Hummingbird" is so full of life- both fair and unfair- that it makes one cringe with empathy as we reflect on our own inability at that age to understand what's going on around us. It's a film that's sad but affirming that we're not alone in this world. As a debut effort, "House of Hummingbird" proudly announces Bora as a talent that deserves to have anything she dares conjuring put up on the screen for all to relish.


5. A Canterbury Tale (1944), directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell - A road movie interrupted by a bit of Nancy Drew mystery, Powell and Pressburger's "A Canterbury Tale" is a magical exploration of faith and perspective during wartime. Every motive here- whether it's the eventual unmasking of the mysterious "glue man" or the unwavering goodness of its three main characters- belies a deep understanding of human nature, made even more resplendent by the film's final moments. It seems dicey at first, but Powell and Pressburger make good on their promise to unite their medieval source material with the mechanisms of 1940's war-torn England. As the trio who find their way to various types of perspective and bliss, Eric Portman, Sheila Sim and Dennis Price are excellent, and the way the film maneuvers them through various genres is exhilarating, culminating in what's probably the simplest and magical denouements in the filmmaking duo's long and illustrious career. I watched this twice in about a week after first seeing it earlier this year and I can't imagine a more palette cleansing way to celebrate cinema than this.


4. Nightmare Alley (1947), directed by Edmond Goulding - Based on a novel by William Lindsey Gresham (whose real life seemed like a mirror to the hard drinking and pessimistic outlook of many of the film's characters), "Nightmare Alley" seems to fit in a variety of genres. It's been called horror (as one scene towards the end certainly has "The Innocents" vibes), film noir (where it seems to be slotted most of the time) and postwar thriller since its release in 1947. For my money, its unclassifiable because it handles so many of its twists and turns with mastery. As the wanderer-turned-mentalist-conman, Tyrone Power is perfect, and Goulding treats the entire affair with the utmost sincerity. Thinking back several days after absorbing this bleak psychological thriller, I don't recall a single ray of sunlight penetrating its mass. Even the opening carnival scene- typically a sun drenched affair for families to frolic and glare at the attractions- takes place at night. We'll ultimately get the Hollywood remake in a couple of months (and I only hope it half as good as the original), but this late 40's version stands as one of the great films of the period. And even though the ending is telegraphed a bit, it still resonates with chilling vibrancy about the comeuppance it provides its suave men and women.


3. Captain Conan
(1996), directed by Bertrand Tavernier - Towards the very end of Bertrand Tavernier's rambling but masterful "Captain Conan", the titular character (played with bull headed narcissism  by Phillippe Torreton), tells his sometimes adversary/mostly war buddy lawyer (Samuel Le Bihan) that the people in his small village where he's retired to "should have seen him when he was alive".  Alive- in the mind and soul of Conan- involves his reckless bravery during World War I and the eventual French occupation along the Russian border when he and his small band of troops would run headfirst into gun fire and attack the enemy at close range, taking an almost gleeful pleasure in killing with knives and detached bayonets. The first third of the film deftly follows this in choreographed long takes up hills, around explosions, and into the shadowy depths of smoke and fire. In this role, Conan is a god. Things shift a bit in the second part of the film when the violence is largely over and Conan and his French soldier cohorts are charged with occupying and maintaining order in Belarus. It's here that Tavernier's real motives emerge. The glorification of violence in the muddy, treaded trenches and hills of World War I turns inward and the film asks questions about masculinity and the toxic attitude that pervades during peacetime. Some of my favorite films are about this murky point in history when the war is over, occupying lines are crossed and no one seems to understand (or care) about the norms of society. Think of Christian Petzold's "Phoenix" (2014). Rosselini's "Germany, Year Zero" (1948) or Carol Reed's "The Third Man" (1949)- all films that exquisitely map the rubble existence of black marketing, self debasement and moral compromise in a world where everyone's scratching for something. Conan throws himself into this void of morality with the same ferocity he did in war, covering up for his soldiers when they commit atrocities or burying himself in alcohol. Tavernier directs the hell out of this film.


2. Pillaged
(1967), directed by Alain Cavalier - 
The French sure had a way of regurgitating film. Taking the stellar heist films of the 50's such as John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" and Jules Dassin's "Riffifi" and metastasizing them into a lurid sub-genre all their own, there lies so many hidden gems (and outright classics of their own) in the decades to come. From Jean Pierre Melville's ice-cold treatises on betrayal and meticulous technique to the bruised energies of the many Alain Delon titles, there's always a surprise to be had. Released in 1967, the film stars a who's who of French character actors (Michel Constantin, Daniel Ivernel, Phillipe Moreau and Irene Tunc) as a motley group of safe crackers, stick-up men and underworld roustabouts tossed together for the sole purpose of surveying a gorge-village town and robbing the bank, the local steel mill cash holdings and anything else that crosses their paths. Each man has a distinct job and within 20 minutes, "Pillaged" is knee deep in the overnight heist, carefully establishing its plan and then observing as most things go like clockwork. Of course, being a French film noir, something unexpected crops up and the job goes incrementally wrong before the sun rises. This is a film that deserves to be discovered on DVD. Or, if we're lucky, perhaps a big screen revival of some type of French crime film. I really need to own a movie theater.
 
 
1. Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015), directed by Chloe Zhao


What a year for Chloe Zhao. From winning the Oscar to helming a mega budget Marvel film, it was definitely an arrival for the mainstream. But, as this debut film proves, she's been here all along. 
Like she did with her sophomore film "The Rider" (2018), "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" takes place with people mostly portraying themselves.... or at least thinly veiled fictional recreations of themselves. And it wouldn't be far off to wonder if that later film didn't rise out of the barren-land ashes of this film as Zhao's camera often becomes much more interested in the rodeo bucking community that fraternally rubs against her Indian reservation-set debut. But regardless of its foundations, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is an amazing film for the way it never seems to be in a rush of narrative. Things happen and great developmental arcs occur, but the film just captures a sense.... a time... and a place with generous acuity. And, like most of her films, it's a mood thing. Zhao often frames the activity around the reservation in long shot, allowing for streaks of lightning to cascade in the background or curtains of sunset light to bathe the screen. The mixture of nature and man- that is so prevalent in all her work- gets first attention here. It's a beautifully rendered atmosphere for her characters to bounce around this big sky country with dour, internalized permutations of angst and trepidation. We feel for them because although they reside in a place largely foreign to my experience, the emotions and depth of confusion in growing up are universal. Zhao seems to excel in creating these types of stories and I look forward to following her long and beautiful career.