Monday, May 10, 2021

Mood

My favorite moment from any Hou Hsiao-Hsien film.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Spring 2021 edition

1. Bloody Kids (1980)- 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.

 2. Papa, the Little Boats (1974) -  One of four Nelly Kaplan films available on the Criterion channel. Psycho-sexual deception as screwball comedy. Not as good (or biting) as her previous assault on the bourgeoisie, "A Very Curious Girl". 

3. Dear Comrades! (2020) - Andrei Konchalovskiy, now in his 80's, is probably best remembered for his long ago Hollywood action hits like "Runaway Train" and "Tango & Cash". With this film, he retraces the appaling tragedy when Russian soldiers opened fire on a protesting factory group. The violence is swift and shocking, and its black and white cinematography adds a layer of grace to the whole affair.

4. The Taste of Violence (1961) - 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.

5. Luz The Flower of Evil (2018) - It looks pretty and all, but the idea behind this slow-burn psychological horror film about a devout rural religious "prophet" and the hell he puts his 3 daughters through isn't pretty at all. I wanted to like it, but just couldn't connect.

6. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2011) - More Adam Curtis films will soon follow as I really dig the rabbit holes he often goes down. This three part, 3 hour documentary enraptures for the first two-thirds, and I don't quite always follow the strands he attempts to weave together, but his image selection and musical cues are second to none.

7. Love, Gilda (2019) - One sort of knows the mediocrity one will get from these CNN Films. I didn't know a ton about Gilda Radner besides her terrific Saturday Night Live presence and that wonderful childhood favorite of mine, "Haunted Honeymoon". It's a well meaning effort, but one that doesn't dig far enough beneath the surface, even when it uses her own words to describe the turmoil and humor.

8. Pretend It's a City (2021) - This is very old-man-screaming-at-the-sky stuff. Watched as an obligatory Scorsese completest.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Cinema Obscura: Bertrand Tavernier's "Captain Conan"

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. 

All of this contradicts the narrow view of law and life that Lt. Norbert (Le Bihan) is forced to deal with, whether he owes anything to the swaggering heroics of Captain Conan or not. Tavernier sets up a complex back and forth as the French soldiers grind against the accepted and its up to Norbert to see some sort of justice is meted.

 
Eschewing any single point of view, Tavernier (who also wrote the impressive script) directs the hell out of the film. From the opening war images to the almost hilarious shuffling of bureaucratic duties among military leadership tired of nagging relatives or superfluous documents, "Captain Conan" takes the title of one man but slowly opens up to conflate the whole experience of war. It's easy to create an anti-war film, but Tavernier does the impossible and makes a statement that war is perhaps necessary for some people and then simultaneously corrosive for the same.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Moments of the Year 2020

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 22nd 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.

 

 

 Bill Nighy and his predilection for fire place screens in “Emma.”

A gunshot and a dog scrambling from the scene. Haunted memories and regret that plague an informer in “The Traitor”

In "The Sound of Metal", the single scene of Mathieu Almaric and Riz Ahmed in a kitchen together as a father who knows more than he says, and his silence speaks volumes as he allows a couple to reunite for the last time.

A woman (Mackenzie Davis) walking down a hallway, casting a shadow and another light shadow eerily stalking behind her.   “The Turning”

The way Fay (Sierra McCormick) says “stop smiling” twice to her friend when she asks about Everett (Jake Horowitz)    “The Vast of Night”

Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) coming backstage to meet "Tesla" (Ethan Hawke) as if she's exiting a psychotropic rave

Black water slowly recessing in a toilet to reveal….. A thing.   “Amulet”

A kitchen pot rocking itself out after being thrown to the floor during a police raid.  “Mangrove”

The desperate faces fixated on an unknowing man (James Northern) as he peels an orange and then throws the peel to the floor, causing a small scuffle from the rabid group of poverty-stricken people.  “Mr. Jones”

Wisdom from Abel Ferrara in “Sportin’ Life” when he states “old keys don’t open new doors, man.”

Willem DaFoe initially going out to chastise a homeless man yelling in the street beneath his window, and the scene that unfolds afterwards between the two men.   “Tommaso”

In “Texas Trip”, the performance of body horror by Mother Fauker.

The badly drawn Obama tattoo.  “The King of Staten Island”

When Tutar (Maria Bakalova) states she wants a nice cage like her female neighbor. Cut to a woman in a cage giving us the finger in “Subsequent Borat MovieFilm”

The way the camera slightly shakes alongside Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) as she learns to shoot a gun in “I’m You’re Woman”

A wedding reception and the alleyway into a street. Regret and time passing slowly for two different people in “The Traitor”

"His House" and the anxiety of waiting for a flip of the light switch to a netherworld of terror

A dinner scene with a group of hearing impaired people having a conversation in sign language, and then an abrupt cut to allow us to hear the innate noise caused by all the hand gestures and mouthing. Just one of the ways sound design is used brilliantly in "Sound of Metal"  

Hands connecting from opposite sides of a subway pole. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always"

In "A White White Day", the simple time lapse of a house and field over an undisclosed amount of time as weather and the passage of time take its toll.

A radio controlled car.  "Train To Busan: Peninsula"




Sunday, January 31, 2021

We Are What We Are: On Chloe Zhao's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me"

On the receiving end of widespread acclaim with her latest film "Nomadland", it would behoove anyone interested in Chloe Zhao as a developing filmmaker to visit her feature length debut, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me". As a filmmaker wholly interested in presenting complex stories of individualistic wandering among a community rarely experienced on-screen, all of these tenets are present from the get go.

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.

The story that eventually develops involves teenager John (Johnny Reddy) and his twelve year old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) who live on a South Dakota Indian reservation. In the first few minutes, we learn their licentious father has died in an accident. It bothers the two siblings, but the film isn't about their sadness over his death. Instead, we observe as they figure out who they want to become in life. John is involved with a local girl (Taysha Fuller) and their amorous plans to leave town together loom. Meanwhile, young Jashaun observes her brother's burgeoning adulthood from outside, eventually becoming friends with her heavily tattooed stepbrother (one of about 19 children from her father around town), freshly released from prison and battling to stay afloat in a world that constantly offers little escape.

Beyond that, "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is 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 John and Jashaun to bounce around this big sky country with dour, internalized permutations of angst and unsuredness. 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.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

My Fav Movies of 2020

As posted at Dallas Film Now: 

My favorite movies of the year, in descending order:

15. Tesla

14. Zappa

13. Undine

12. Saint Frances

11. The Assistant

10. Miracle Fishing

9. Sound of Metal

8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

7. To the Ends of the Earth

6. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

5. Mangrove

4. Crip Camp

3. The Vast of Night

2. Tommasso

1. The Traitor


Friday, January 01, 2021

The Best Non 2020 Films I Saw in 2020

10. Greaser's Palace (1972), directed by Robert Downey 

The story of Christ transposed to the American West.... where Christ wears a purple zoot suit and brings back to life the same man about a dozen times. Absurdism isn't quite the right word. Hysterical, it is. In one scene, two men try and ride away on a horse but continually fall off. I'm not sure if this was intended commentary on the trajectory of our expectations on the genre or just something that happened and director Downey decided to use it since the entire crew and cast were probably stoned The whole film is like that.... not quite a parody but wallowing in the excesses of hippie filmmaking to create something altogether unique. And the film stops down for not one but two extended song and dance sequences that only furthers its individualistic attitude about subverting things. I'm not as warm to Downey's other works, but "Greaser's Palace" is marvelous.

 

 9. A Vigilante (2018), directed by Sarah Daggar-Nickson

What drew me to Sarah Daggar-Nickson's film, "A Vigilante", was the star headliner Olivia Wilde. But what emanates from this film long after its over is the ferocious attention to sorrow and the unique/challenging ways that specific emotion can branch out into the world and provide relief for others. And I don't use the word "ferocious" lightly here. As an abused woman whose taken her harrowing ordeal to great heights, Wilde becomes a helper to other women who can't escape their own toxic plight. This sort of rationalization of violence has been the stalwart narrative device for lots of previous films (mostly male driven), but in "A Vigilante", Daggar-Nickson taps into a special force that Wilde embodies with passionate dedication and steely resolve. This is a film that will make you wince.... nervous.... angry..... everything Wilde experiences, the film mirrors in intensity. It's jagged timeline of events doesn't make anything easier. "A Vigilante" is a film with an unassuming title, but one that deserves its place in the catalog of lean, driven revenge films but asks that you don't necessarily cheer for its protagonist, but get just as angry with her about the culture of abusive violence. The least we can do is recognize the anger behind its action-film facade and do our best to listen and help those living this fiction for real.


8. Laughter In the Dark (1969), directed by Tony Richardson

Like his best film "The Loved Ones" (and one of the truly great films to earn the moniker of black comedy), director Tony Richardson's adaptation of Nabokov's "Laughter In the Dark" is uneasily funny and consistently unnerving, especially in its final third after free-spirit Anna Karina has successfully and insidiously evaporated the posh lifestyle and marriage of an art dealer (Nicol Williamson). She's not fully to blame, since Williamson laser-sets his attention on Karina upon first sight....like a similar sexual compulsion that spins the eerie attraction within Nabokov's most recognizable work "Lolita". "Laughter In the Dark" is so good because it can be read as an attack on many things: the end of the 60's as free love and flower power turned dark and the hippies settled into the burgeoning halls of power and innovation around the world.... as sexual compulsion literally blinding someone.... and as a potent exploration of man and woman's shifting, destructive power over each other. This film deserves a proper release (seen here through a copy obviously spliced together from an old worn VHS tape). Anna Karina has never been better as sensual exploiter with a strong head for absurd manipulation. 


7. Reign of Terror (1949), directed by Anthony Mann

Though taking place within the Robespierrian subterfuge of late 18th century France, Anthony Mann's "Reigh of Terror" walks, talks and looks like a 40's American noir. With barely a frame of sunlight to brighten the elusive motivations of its various double and triple agents- all searching for a little black book of names that could derail or save France's future- the film is heavy in both mood and tempo. It's also a white-knuckle ride of close calls and searching deception. One of Mann's best films produced directly after "Border Patrol" and among a string of original noir films that feel effortless.


6. A Dark Song (2016), directed by Liam Gavin

Every now and then, a horror film comes along that understands the true value of slow burn. Liam Gavin's "A Dark Song" is one such effort. Like Rob Zombie's adrenalized "House of 1,000 Corpses", Gavin's film won me over in the final third when all the wicca magick and supernatural elements that provided a faint dusting of atmosphere in the first half give way to a mind-boggling climax of horror and outrageousness in its second half. In it's own twisted way, this is a film that has more to say about faith and the invisible lines between heaven and hell than most of those Christian produced I Believe films.

 

5. Fever (1981), directed by Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland's "Army of Shadows" and a bold early masterwork from a filmmaker whose had her definite highs and lows. Focusing on a roundelay of characters and never settling one just one, the film follows each revolutionary socialist in their relationship to the possession or harboring of a bomb intended to assassinate the czar. Just as doom-laden as Melville's earlier Resistance drama, "Fever" is an apt title, representing either the fervor each character feels for his/her revolutionary temperament and ideals or the sweaty impulse it imbues in the viewer as a series of double crosses, internal expulsions and coincidental incidents continually stifle their violent purpose. Hard to find, but well worth the search.


4. To the Ends of the Earth (2018), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa swerves in yet another endearing direction with "To the End of the Earth". Essentially a travelogue film about a young TV show host named Yoko (pairing again with K-pop star Atsuko Maeda) and her camera crew slugging around Uzbekistan searching for human interest stories and locales, Kurosawa slyly opens up a nuanced portrait of culture clash and homesickness. Initially a cipher for the direction of her cameraman and producer instructing her what to do and say, Maeda's Yoko gradually becomes the silent beating heart of the film as she wanders around, gets into trouble for filming a restricted area and faces heartbreaking challenges from back home. And it's revealed that she, really, only wants to be a singer in life. But for all the film's stasis during it's first two thirds (with the exception of a freed goat and its ultimate repercussions), "To the Ends of the Earth" subtly shatters your heart in its final thirty minutes as Yoko breaks free from the constricted nature of her role and does something for herself. And the final moments are overwhelmingly sweet and hopeful in a film that, up until that point, made the case that leering eyes at outsiders and the inability to clearly communicate are terrifying ways to live day by day. Kurosawa has crafted a magnificent film that not only completely pivots from his other work, but reveals the master still hasn't lost a step no matter what direction he chooses to go. (edit: it appears this film has received a very quiet year end release in 2020.)


3. Seventeen Years (1999), directed by Zhang Yuan

Released in 1999- during the explosive and now legendary year of new Hollywood classics produced by expressive individualistic talents- Zhang Yuan's "Seventeen Years" deserves its overdue status as a masterpiece in the midst of this towering cinematic year. Essentially an observational travelogue film about a recently furloughed prisoner and the prison guard who unselfishly escorts her to her holiday destination, it eventually becomes an overpowering examination of regret and forgiveness. I dare anyone to watch the final few minutes and not get emotionally floored in the way Yuan stages a reunion scene where eyes, guarded body language and the gentle unspoken curl of lips says more about the inner workings of this family's trenchant relationship than any screenplay could ever deliver.


2. Border Incident (1949), directed by Anthony Mann

 

Made right before his run of film noirs would be over and he'd embark on a series of westerns throughout the 50's, Mann's "Border Incident" feels especially dark, full of heroic compromise and real-world nihilism that cancel each other out. It's also quite the prescient film. If not for a somewhat tacked-on voice over that closes the film with a hint of optimism, "Border Incident" could be released today and we'd all nod and agree that the problem is as divisive and violent as ever. The story, which delves into the illegal smuggling of Mexican labor forces across the US border, is half a cop story (as undercover agent Ricardo Montalban tries to infiltrate the criminal organization) and half brutal social commentary. This is the type of film in which a man is crushed by a tractor and it doesn't even blink an eye. With this film and "Reign of Terror", at number 7 on this list, filmmaker Mann reached his epoch of beautiful fatalism.


1. The River (1951), directed by Jean Renoir

Made smack in the middle of Renoir's second life in cinema, rooted in Hollywood after fleeing Europe during World War II, I'm repentant it's taken me this long to see this film (as if the case with so many late career Renoirs). Washing over one like a golden memory, "The River" introduces itself like an easy memorization  of languid colonialism, and soon transforms itself into an interior examination of what it means to actually remember those metamorphic moments that make us the people we are today.
Often praised for its Technicolor sharpness (and no doubt it looks incredible), but the real hook of the film is it's gentle spirit of the intimate. Focusing mainly on three young women- teenage daughter Harriet (Patricia Walters), friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and adopted Indian daughter Melanie (Radha)- the family lives in a sprightly existence. Prone to poetry and introspection, Harriet serves as the film's narrator, trying her best to objectify the subjectivity that happens along the way. And what happens along the way is the appearance of Captain John (Thomas Breen), a wounded war veteran who comes to live with the family, setting off fireworks between all three females on the property.
But far from a glib tale of unrequited love or possession, "The River" (based on a novel by Rumer Godden) is much too smart for such a thing. Each woman steadies a distinct relationship with Capt. John and the film carefully measures out the mood of each. With Valerie, the relationship is seductive and adult. With Melanie, it's tenuous since they both come from staggeringly different backgrounds. Their relationship feels like the one that would overtake the rest of a much more slight effort. And with Harriet, "The River" finds its true footing, which is an examination of a young woman trying to make sense of both her flowering adulthood and the cruel world around her. None of the three relationships drown the other out, and each compliments the film as something attuned to the gentle rhythms of growing up.