Monday, August 28, 2023

The Current Cinema 23.4


It'd be misleading to read Ira Sachs' latest effort, "Passages", through the eyes of its amorous, confused, and ultimately destructive lead character Tomas (Franz Rogowski). Oscillating between the relationship with his husband, Martin (a tremendous Ben Whishaw who deserves all the year end accolades) and his start-up affair with beautiful teacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), Tomas doesn't feel that far removed from the caddish interlopers of the French New Wave. But "Passages", ultimately, concerns itself less with Tomas and more with the two people caught up in his sexual confusion. This is a film about frank sexuality- which is terrific when it's fresh and impetuous- and all three people in this love triangle experience it. However, what lingers most vividly about the situation is the way Sachs quickly dries out the sexuality and creates a devastating portrait of those rejected and damaged from Tomas' willful carnality. Whishaw is brilliant in the way he recoils and holds in his sadness during one incredible scene. Likewise, Exarchopoulos is luminous in her stringent performance and the way she maintains a sense of individuality within yet another expression of amour fou (something she's become famous for). I suppose all the character traits were there on display in the opening scene as filmmaker Tomas berates and constantly stops a scene he's filming in order to get the right presence of someone walking down a flight of stairs. "Passages" is an exploration of the starts-and-stops we experience in a relationship as well. It's just a shame it comes at the expense of two wonderful people like Martin and Agathe, who Sachs handles with empathy and intelligence.


The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Typically a dumping ground for left-over gambles and small independent films that finally manage to squeeze their way onto one of the 24 screen multiplexes, August is a miserable month. Add to that at least one horror film each year in a vain attempt at counter-programming, and that's where Andre Ovredal's "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" lands. Literally ripped from the pages of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" tale, "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" actually succeeds because of its swallowing atmosphere and confident bloodletting in a confined space. The space is a ship whose unlucky cargo happens to be the prince of darkness, and the cast is a who's-who of familiar character actor faces (Liam Cunningham from "Game of Thrones", Corey Hawkin, Aisling Franciosi, and David Dastmalchian) charged with battling the creature. There are no great revolutions here. It isn't saying much. The scares are generally rote. But what "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" does have is terrific production design and a suffocating sense of foggy, inevitable bloodshed. For the August dumping ground, that's enough for me to purely enjoy this film for what it is.


The Unknown Country 

I love, love, love this type of wispy travelogue film that says nothing, but manages to say everything. As the woman traveling, Lily Gladstone deserves her big year, and Morrisa Maltz's "The Unknown Country" understands that the most powerful expression in cinema is not the words, but the face. Harboring a restless sense of sadness and displacement, the film follows Tana (Gladstone) as she travels from Minneapolis to her cousin's wedding on the reservation in South Dakota. From there, she heads south in search of something greater than herself. Generally keeping the viewer imbalanced on just where we are in the journey with Tana across an American landscape that's alternatively beautiful and alarming for a single woman, "The Unknown Country" also takes the time to dwell on the genuine, honest faces Tana comes across in her journey. We even get to hear these people tell a quick story of their lives, and a fiction film becomes semi-documentary... as if Maltz also wants to craft an anthropological study of the goodness buried in a world teeming with angry talk radio and the division of people- something that becomes central to Tana's long car rides that not only serve as a location marker, but also the static of a world going on carelessly around her. Ultimately, "The Unknown Country" knocks all this away and chooses to emphasize the people orbiting around Tana. Best when it settles on the sweet, proud worldview of her estranged relatives on the Indian reservation (including a knock out performance by long time character actor Richard Ray Whitman), it's enervating to watch Gladstone's performance begin to soak in their grace and carry on southward for something more. The world may still be swerving around her, but "The Unknown Country" has the grace and fragility to slow everything down and celebrate those in the moment. A wonderful film.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Franchise Fatigue

For two nights in a row, I exited a movie theater supremely disappointed in the latest incarnations of two franchises whose history has given me a memorable (and in one case classic) lineage. "Insidious: The Red Door" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" pretty much broke my heart. From where both of these franchises started to the dregs of where they are now, I began to wonder if the fault lies with my old-man-screaming-at-clouds disillusion with the Hollywood project. With "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny", I could feel my heart shrinking into my chest within the first 20 minutes of an elongated action sequence that sees Jones (Harrison Ford, right digitized and de-aged) spring about Nazi castles, trains, and motorcycles as if he's trying out for the latest Marvel film. Add to the fact that director James Mangold's fifth iteration of the Indiana Jones franchise looks so murky and tactless, and it quickly became a recipe for immense dissatisfaction. Granted, I slowly warmed to the film as it went along, but with each larger set piece and a finale that dares to actually visualize the metaphysical nuances that made "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" so enthralling as young teen, it's an entry in a vaulted series of films that I will most assuredly never re-visit.

The hatred of Patrick Wilson's "Insidious 3: The Red Door" came more incrementally. For the first 30 minutes, the fourth installment of the James Wan/Leigh Whannell horror series establishes the anemia of its father-son relationship between Wilson and college-bound son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) as both struggle with the slow release of the pent up horrors of their past (through hypnosis) that eventually sees them both re-enter "the further" for more terrifying shenanigans. There are some creepy corner-screen movements that set the stage for something grand, however, the scares are ultimately neutered by the very bland performances and unremarkable scares. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that "Insidious: The Red Door" is content to create fan fiction (complete with shoehorned cameos by Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Wannell) and serve as greatest hits for a franchise that began with a shrieking sense of old school horror and a demented, go-for-broke mentality. None of that exists in the latest film.

Looking at both films and the wonderful filmic parents that spawned them, what went wrong? Granted, this is just my rhetorical question as I'm sure both films have their admirers.... although most of the accolades I've seen for "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" range from "well, it's better than Crystal Skull" and "fun!". Ever since its premier at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Mangold's latest Indiana incarnation has mostly been met with subdued murmur. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to love both films. And since I was lukewarm on "Insidious 3" and could see the film getting further and further away from the genuine terror evoked by the first two "Insidious" efforts, I suppose my greatest frustration lies with "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny".... which also has strayed into a netherworld of CGI confusion and murkiness so far removed from the practical excitement of the first three Indiana Jones films that its tired set pieces play like a video game without physics or sensibility. Each action scene- its opening, a ride on a horse through the New York subway, a cart chase in Morocco- rely on so much wham-bam CGI green screen effects that they remove all heart and emotion from a series that once proudly succeeded on mixing true heroic characterizations with bracing, exuberant, practical adventures. I know this type of film is still hopeful in Hollywood, but both "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" and "Insidious: The Red Door" make the case that we're getting further away from replicating (or even marginally extending) the simple joys of what made these franchises so enjoyable long ago. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Flares and Squibs: Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War"

Ringo Lam's "Undeclared War" had me from its stunningly violent open in which a baptism ambush leads into hand grenades and helicopters. From there, it staggers into pretty much every late 80's/early 90's action film aesthetic- from the gaudy lens flares that visually accentuate Hong Kong 'actioners' of the time to the cop buddy narrative that sees two opposing worldviews combine to stop a global terrorist. Add to the mixture loads of cop swagger and "Undeclared War" is a pop masterpiece from a director known more for inspiring the skeletal outline of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" than for his own works. After seeing Lam's "Sky On Fire" at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival and then lapping up the brutality of his Jean Claude Van Damme collaboration (one of his many) "In Hell" last year, I've had the enjoyment of discovering one engaging action film after another. As usual, going beyond pop culture lip sync to observe the original purveyors holds so much more value.

And the value in "Undeclared War" hits the viewer in the face immediately. After the aforementioned violent opening, the stage is set for a visiting CIA Agent Gary (Peter Liapis) to team up with a local special agent in Hong Kong, Bong (Danny Lee), after his ambassador brother is assassinated by a terrorist named Hannibal (Vernon Wells). Played to cool perfection by Wells, Hannibal seems like a baddie ejected from the "Mission Impossible" universe.... prone to quickly dispatching those who fail him and eluding everyone through a variety of disguises. He's also a pretty good hand-to-hand combat fighter as well.

But beyond the mechanics of a plot that sees Gary and Inspector Bong putting aside their personal differences (Gary from the "Lethal Weapon" school of policing and Bong from the respect-bureaucracy phase of detective work), what stands out from "Undeclared War" is the clean and precise action set pieces. From a funeral home to a large hotel conference finale, Lam maintains a focused, organized logistics of violence. We understand where everyone is. The gun shots feel real. The delineation of good guys and bad guys is pronounced. Unlike so many Hong Kong action films, Lam doesn't lose sense of the placement of bodies and the elongation of suspense. Just watch how he handles a bomb in the finale. Or the cool confidence of police guys doing their work. Like the films of Johnnie To or especially Michael Mann, Lam infuses "Undeclared War" with a keen awareness of both public and private space in an action universe. I love discovering works like this and look forward to more Lam.


Monday, June 19, 2023

The Current Cinema 23/3


The twisted beauty of Zachary Wigon's "Sanctuary" is that it's a film of two people, sitting in a room and talking. Well, it eventually devolves into a maddening, cerebral examination of the push-and-pull between the said two people (Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley), and it doesn't help matters that the relationship is based on the paid expectation of a dominatrix session. "Sanctuary" is even more jarring because anyone expecting a cheap, lurid thrill based on the word "dominatrix" will be sorely lost as the film (literally) tosses the script early on and becomes a trenchant power play where words, ideas, and threats quickly replace the commodity of sexual gratification. Abbott and Qualley (typically) excel in their high-wire roles.... he as Hal, the recently uber-rich heir to a hotel fortune and she, the paid escort who takes his wishes to end their relationship in very menacing stride. Written by Micah Bloomberg, "Sanctuary" thrills from beginning to end with its allusion that domination-as-therapy has its thorny limits. And in the heavily committed performances by Abbott and Qualley, the film could also be seen as domination-as-therapy filmmaking itself.

Past Lives


Celine Song's debut is a film that owes its heartfelt lineage to the films of Julio Medem, Richard Linklater, and Wong Kar Wai..... all filmmakers that certainly believe in true love, but not in the traditional way, but in how love manifests itself across the unreachable barriers put up by the universe's cosmic sense of humor. In "Past Lives", Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) meet as kids and then spend the next 24 years hopelessly trying to rekindle what they once shared on the steps of a building, each going their own direction. Song and her actors etch so much fragility, honesty, and emotion into the vagaries of their relationship that, when the two meet again in New York for the first time as adults, their reactions are so organic and heartfelt, I felt guilty (like an interloper) for watching the film. But once that feeling passes and "Past Lives" continues to weave its magical spell of yearning (plus facing the uncomfortable but blazingly honest performance of Nora's now husband played to perfection by John Magaro) I ultimately felt grateful for the beauty of a film willing to allow us to share in all the uncomfortable silences that build up over (possibly) thousands of years between people. I can't stop thinking about this one.

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Current Cinema 23.2


There's a scene in the middle of Saim Sadiq's ironically titled "Joyland" that sees Haider (Ali Junejo) save the lighting impaired show of trans dancer Biba (Alina Khan) by urging everyone to shine their cell phone lights towards the stage. It's a bustling moment of joy that interrupts the generational struggle of the film's many characters and establishes a quiet humanity that most films never realize. It's easy to say from that point on, the film is all tragically downhill- full of subdued emotions and some of the year's most striking cinematography- but "Joyland" is too smart to be just an international downer. The characters are too dimensional.... the emotions are too well earned.... and Sadiq understands that great truth comes from great sadness. Outside of the central relationship between Haider and Biba, "Joyland" tracks the rest of Haider's extended family as they convene in one large house together. The cultural observations typical in most Iranian films are observed but mangled. Both wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) and his sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani) are dynamic. The various sideways and byways given to the rest of the family are highly involving as well as they try to simply live in a modernized world. But "Joyland" ultimately rests on the destructive relationship of Haider and Biba as they navigate capricious times together. It all comes together in a damning finale that washes over the viewer (literally) and exemplifies the messiness of life;s choices even if we try not to hurt others.


The Covenant

Or "Guy Ritchie's The Covenant" to distinguish it from another film of the same name, this rah-rah war effort starts out pretty disdainfully..... full of macho swagger and the same military might that infuses most films about America's involvement in Afghanistan after September 11th. But once the film shifts gears in the second half and concerns itself with Jake Gyllenhall trying to save the translator (Dar Salim) who saved his life, "The Covenant" emits a few interesting ideas about the price (and scornful debt) of war. It's also the first film in a while to present war violence in a clear-eyed and unflinching light. Ritchie and company certainly have fun watching all those bodies spray about, but there's a ruthlessness that's undeniable. While it's a film that clearly wants to earn its stripes with middle 'merica, I forgive some of its awful gung-ho earnestness in the way it presents pretty much everyone with guilt-soaked hands.


The Eight Mountains

Europeans seem to do heartfelt, decades-spanning tales of friendship better than most. In Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch's "The Eight Mountains", that sentiment is again exemplified. Telling the story of two men (Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi) who waver in and out of each other's lives for 40 years, "The Eight Mountains" dispenses with narrative gently and wisely. Even though some elements of the story seem a bit forced in that art-house way (especially the building of a mountainside house), the film never condescends in the way its characters ebb and flow across time. All the performances are spectacular and the cinematography is equally breathtaking, whether its exploring the snow capped vistas of a mountain range or the barely lit interiors of brick-enforced homes. But through it all, the "The Eight Mountains" captivates because of the carefully modulated central relationship between Pietro and Bruno and how-despite their best efforts- they slowly slide into becoming their fathers. "The Eight Mountains" doesn't blame anyone, but gracefully explores how life gives us immense perspective of both the exterior and interior.


Saturday, April 15, 2023

Cinema Obscure: Dominik Graf's "Bitter Innocence"

Dominik Graf's "Bitter Innocence" twists about halfway through from a corporate thriller to a sweet love story borne out of the casual indifference and sexual violence men perpetrate on women. That the love forms between a twenty-something woman (Laura Tonke) and the young teen daughter (Mareike Lindenmeyer) trying to unravel the mystery her parents have immersed themselves in should come as no shock to those who've watched just a few of Graf's films. They are mostly love stories buried within a larger framework of genre. Last year's masterwork called "Fabian: Going to the Dogs" is one of the most lush romance films in years, buttressed against the backdrop of an encroaching Nazi evil. Situated firmly in the times it was made (1999), "Bitter Innocence" follows the same pattern as love is widdled out of the complicated yuppie mindset that those in the corporate world can get away with anything if their check book is large enough.

But before we get to the central relationship of Vanessa and Eva, Graf's film wanders through the thriller realm when aggressive boss Larssen (Michael Mendle) threatens to destabilize the vague pharmaceutical company Andreas (Elmar Weppar) has been conducting research within for the past few years. Andreas' fears about the wolf Larssen are confirmed when he discovers him raping Vanessa behind closed doors. Working as a waitress for a catering company providing services at a company party, Andreas doesn't report (or even lift a finger to help) the vulnerable Vanessa, instead using the the act to steal a file that may secure his employment..... which is a prickly move since Vanessa sees him dodge out without coming to any sort of chivalry rescue.

From there, Larssen, Andreas, his wife Monika (Andrea L'Arronge), Vanessa and young daughter Eva become embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game of who-knows-what and whose-blackmailing-who. It's about two-thirds of the way through that "Bitter Innocence" grows a moral compass in the scrappy personality of young Eva as she tries to set things right..... and falls in love with the sophisticated perfume salesman-Vanessa during the process.

With the visual style of a glistening television movie (Graf has careened through an array of features, both for the big and small screens) and a sense of rhythm like that of a soap opera, the film's themes of ravishing passions and high intrigue feel right at home with that lowbrow entertainment. But Graf's swirling ambition about the youth of the world being the most morally grounded figures in a world set on financial gain and personal advancement (and I didn't even mention the affairs!) fits right at home in the subversive tactics of a filmmaker who continually buries so much in his works. I look forward to carrying through with his expansive body of work. 

Sunday, April 09, 2023

The Current Cinema 23.1



Walking the fine (but successful) line between noir pastiche and its own brutal re-imagining of young Hollywood corruption, the negative talk about Neil Jordan's "Marlowe" should be ignored at all costs. Embodying Raymond Chandler's P.I. for the umpteenth time in cinema, this time Liam Neeson gets to flex his laconic detective muscles in a terrific looking 1939 Los Angeles noir that glides its way through the underbelly of a town hellbent on movie magic and criminal debauchery. What begins as a missing person case by the elusive and wealthy Diane Kruger who elicits Marlowe's help, naturally, boils over into a cauldron of corruption. The swipes at virtually every neo-noir since "Chinatown" (including a nice in joke of having Danny Huston portray a sinewy club owner) not withstanding, Jordan and writer William Monahan craft an intricate, engaging, and satisfying cocktail of a film. And it features a terrific line from Neeson spurning the advances of the beautiful Kruger. I can't help but imagine it's an act of denial and an ethos that would've saved 50 years worth of previous private investigators from sliding deeper into their own poor choices.



In this second month of the new movie-going year, I doubt there will be a better scene than one portrayed in Frances O' Conner's fictionalized story about the life of Emily Bronte. In a very nineteenth century act of youthful time wasting, a group of people sit around a candlelit room and play "guess who" with a Shakespearean mask. Leave it to young provocateur Emily Bronte (Emma Mackey) to turn their innocent dalliance into a nightmarish seance where she pretends to embody her dead mother. As an example of the heightened manipulation the younger Bronte sister will continually bring to her family, it's an astonishing moment. As a precursor to the belief that no one can ever really understand her genius in mind and spirit, it's a revelation. In "Emily", filmmaker Frances O' Conner (in this her debut feature!) has molded a heartbreaking tale of the young writer as she tries to find her voice. She falls in love with a young minister (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), dabbles in narcotics with her brother (Fionn Whitehead), and desperately tries to step outside the shadow of her older sisters. Composed with an assured sense of mise-en-scene and a soundtrack that melts the wind swept images, "Emily" should be a breakout effort for all involved. 

A Good Person

I wont deride anyone calling this film overwrought and maudlin. It is. But it worked for me, and naturally, Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman are very, very good even if Zach Braff tries to derail any real emotions with a Shins song every few minutes.

The Innocent

A bit of Jacques Audiard with a dash of Hitchcock, and even some David Mamet thrown in for good measure, and one gets Louis Garrel's fun take on the Parisian heist drama. With some good humor and wild energy playing at the margins as well, "The Innocent" hustles through so many genres, it seems Garrel thinks he may not get a chance to do this again. He will. Full of cinematography that screams out the dreamy, frosty fog at France's dawn and garish (but not obtrusive) colors (oh that flower shop!), "The Innocent" also stars Garrel at the heart of a complicated family drama when his mother (Anouk Grinberg) marries an ex-con (Roschdy Zem) who says his past is behind him.... until the curious son decides to butt into his affairs. Also along for the ride is his best friend Clemence (Noemie Merlant). How the story unfolds is hugely entertaining, at its best when we're not sure where reality meets criminal fiction and the con ensues. I'm not sure if the relationships all earn their lush finales, but "The Innocent" is fun as it goes and proves Garrel will be a staple in front and behind the camera for a long time to come.