Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The horror... the horror

The New World

Twenty-five days into the new year, and I doubt I'll find a better film this year than The New World. Directed by Terrence Malick, The New World is yet another moving effort from an artist adept at charging each frame with spirituality and depth. Like the early images of The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and the final half hour of Badlands, The New World is a visionary experience as it observes the interaction between people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It could be dangerous (or the ultimate put-down, boring) to spend so much time with three characters who frolic and find pleasure in nature quite as randomly as the film's three main protagonists do in The New World, but Malick infuses every moment of his film with innocence and heartfelt emotion. Shot in natural light by cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki, actors Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher give restrained and genuine performances, relying on casual glances and body language rather than overt acting. And while a great deal of concern has been given towards Malick's disregard for formal narrative, The New World dispenses a ton of exposition within small jump cuts and intuition. He doesn't feel a need for dialogue. The New World is a tone poem of sorts, and the type of poetic cinema he's been gravitating towards since Days of Heaven. He reaches the apex of his career with The New World. Now let's just hope his timeline of producing films continues to decrease.

Electra Glide In Blue

Electra Glide In BlueElectra Glide In Blue is a curious thing- at once a bracing example of 70's era cinema as well as the lone feature by a director so full of promise and a jaundiced eye for underscoring police corruption in such a playful and biting manner. But, as it stands, this was the only film ever directed by record producer James Guercia (of the band Chicago) and stars a young Robert Blake. Blake plays John Wintergreen, an Arizona motorcycle cop who obeys the law and passionately wants to become detective. He gets his chance when a desert recluse's body turns up and his assumption of murder is quickly validated by veteran detective Harve (Mitchell Ryan). Wintergreen soon becomes witness to the brutal methods of investigation that Harve employs as they scour the desert for a killer. The counter-culture that seems so prevalent in various 'communes' throughout the desert soon become the target of Harve's authoritative search. But, as in so many great films, the resolution of the murder is less interesting than the truths learned by the protagonist along the way. No one comes out unscathed in this film. Blake gives a commanding performance as the moral compass amidst the sweltering desert heat. Even though the film bows out with a heavy handed message concerning the dichotomy between old and new cultures ala Easy Rider, Guercia's film is certainly an underrated classic that deserves its recognition now on DVD. On any given day, I'd be hard pressed not to include this film as one of the best films of the 1970's.


Eli Roth's Hostel has to be given its due for attempting to portray the grimy and twisted characteristics of grindhouse cinema on a mainstream American screen. So why is it still a lackluster effort from a director capable of so much more? I once met Eli Roth. On Halloween 2002, my brother and some friends and I trekked down to Austin, Texas, where Harry Knowles and the Aint-It-Cool-News gang were putting on a Horror-fest of films. Shown on the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, the night was screened against the backdrop of the now defunct Travis County State Hospital- a show of its own since we got to freely wander the grounds and the empty buildings. I remember venturing through the children's ward, pitch black, using only my cell phone as light and seeing some of the crayon drawings still lingering on the padded walls. It was chilling. And the films themselves, Alone in the Dark, some Greek horror movie, Argento's Twitch of the Death Nerve and finally the world premier of Roth's Cabin Fever, paled in comparison to this. But, before Cabin Fever, one of the hosts made the announcement that they were serving lemonade. I got in the long line and was just about to the front when the guy handing out lemonade said he was out. I stood back for a second and curiosity got the better of me. Why lemonade? Why not hot chocolate since it was 45 degrees out? I approached the man serving lemonade and we struck up a short conversation. He told me "you'll understand about the lemonade once you see the final movie tonight." We chatted about the night's event, shared a few favorite horror films and parted ways. After Cabin Fever was over, they introduced Eli on stage, which only added to the crowd's fervor over the cheesy, reverential aspects of the film's delights. I was in minimal shock. Wow… he never even introduced himself as a director or made any mention of his involvement with the event (which seems like a contradiction compared to the preening I've read about his demeanor at Cabin Fever's Toronto Film Festival debut) So, what does all this add up to? In that brief conversation, I could see Roth's passion for filmmaking. And more succinctly, his love of horror films now and then. So it's only natural that Roth would push audience limits with grotesqueries. The first half of Hostel plays way too juvenile, with actors Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson trading lines like "Edward salad-hands groped up Josh!" The guys party more, insult each other over a fanny pack one of them carries, and take pictures of themselves in the bathroom as they screw European women. They find out about a hostel in the Czech Republic where "the girls make all your dreams come true". Of course, this hostel is a front for mean and nasty people to do mean and nasty things (and you know just how grotesque the process must be to have Takashi Miike pop in and do a great cameo). By the time the meanness of the second half kicks in though, the tone is all wrong. We don't care about these people anymore. In Cabin Fever, the tone was cheeky and playful all along. Even when things turn sour, Roth sustained a genuine sense of humor and apathy with the film's dingy teenagers. In Hostel, he tries to combine the best of both tones and fails. Hostel doesn't win you over as either a cheeky, playful throwback or a serious endeavor into the increasingly hard-to-mimic grindhouse movement. It just feels like lazy filmmaking.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Best of 2005

2005 was a great year for film. I've been formally compiling 'best of' lists for almost 12 years now, so why change the intro this year: Composed below are my choices for favorite films of the year. These twenty best may be someone else's twenty worst, nevertheless, so here's hoping we can meet in a compromise and look forward to 2006.

20. "2046"- Wong Kar Wai's elegant, visually sumptuous mood piece grows upon each viewing (and I wouldn't be surprised if it moves up this list in due time). Billed as a sequel to his previous film, "In the Mood For Love", Wong Kar Wai carries the sexual longing forward, again utilizing some of the best (and most beautiful) male and female stars of Asian cinema. At times, the story is set on auto pilot and the musings of lost love flow easily, but the performances of Zhang Yiyi and Tony Leung ground the film. And if all else fails, turn the sound down and get lost in the lush images.

19. "Domino"- I'm not sure if I just gained credibility or lost it by putting a Tony Scott film ahead of a Wong Kar Wai art flick, but oh well. Maybe everyone will keep reading anyway to see where in the hell this goes. Do I really have to apologize for this? It's no doubt my love for director Tony Scott overshadows a lot of things. Keira Knightley is so damn cool here. Though Scott re-visits set pieces from earlier films, it's hard not to fall under the spell of his hot-wired commitment. And by the time cult legend Tom Waits shows up in the middle of the desert after the characters crash their bus due to methamphetamine addiction, you sorta toss your hands up in the air and give in to the film's go-for-broke sensibility anyway. Great pulp cinema. No apologies here.

18. "Walk the Line"- Though Reese Witherspoon outshines Joaquin Phoenix here, the beauty of James Mangold's biopic film is in the unexpected and striking ways he avoids so many tropes of the genre. Where last year's "Ray" was turgid and plodding, "Walk the Line" is lively and fierce. Almost shoving aside the music of Johnny Cash, Mangold instead redirects the film's energy to the connection between Cash and June Carter. The final images, almost an anti-climax, only speak louder of the film's love and appreciation for human connection over pedestrian 'rockabilly' recreation.

17. "Batman Begins"- Give a wily outsider the chance, and he can re-create a dying franchise. I've loved Christopher Nolan since discovering his black and white no-budget debut "Following" in 1999, and here he's given the opportunity to flesh out the Batman series in dark, moving and operatic ways.

16. "Hustle and Flow"- Craig Brewer's Sundance hit carries a long way on the charismatic performance of Terence Howard, but it's also a wonderfully orchestrated ensemble piece. Taraji Henson , Anthony Anderson and Taryn Manning as Howard's main blonde trick provide moments of revelatory emotion and truth in a world full of catastrophe and chaos. Alongside "Walk the Line", "Hustle and Flow" also features tremendous moments that reveal just how electric and breathtaking it can be to produce art out of nothing except words, ideas and interaction.

15. "Cinderella Man"- Ron Howard's Depression-era boxing flick warms the heart and bruises the eye. Russell Crowe is mesmerizing here, and this is the first film that I kinda recognize the greatness of Paul Giamatti.

14. "Happy Endings"- Not known for making masterpieces, independent filmmaker Don Roos certainly rolled the dice here and came up with a jackpot. I mean, honestly, any movie maker who can give Lisa Kudrow and Tom Arnold the roles of their career has to be special. Sort of like Altman's "Short Cuts" on a smaller scale, Roos adds heart and context to the film by inserting text on the bottom of the screen to explain his character's futures as the film plays. It sounds coy, but it works. This one slipped under the radar and got no love on it's release. Rent it now.

13. "Layer Cake"- Not only does Daniel Craig ooze coolness here, Matthew Vaughn's stylish British gangster flick follows a relatively formulaic narrative (i.e. double and triple crosses in the great noir tradition) while managing to seem fresh and highly entertaining. Plus, the color scheme is way cool as well.

12. "Kung Fu Hustle"- One of the most enjoyable times at the theater this year was with Stephen Chow's ebullient and playful "Kung Fu Hustle". Watch it a second time, and you get even more pleasure out of it's Buster Keaton antics and widescreen compositions.

11. "Nobody Knows"- Hirokazu Kore-eda's film is a small, humble piece of filmmaking. Based on real events, four Japanese children are left to fend for themselves after their mother never returns home. The immersion into this world is undeniable. Every trip to the grocery store and every moment on the balcony overlooking their decrepit street is given weighty proportions. And when disaster strikes, it's all the more heartbreaking.

10. "Funny Ha Ha"- Twenty-somethings caught in limbo. Sound familiar? It's not. Andrew Bujalski's debut feature captures some of the brilliant glimmers of interaction between people that marks the realistic works of early Cassavettes. Kate Dollenmayer gives an altogether endearing performance, and though there's a lot of stammering, "yeahs", and "stuff" in this film, Bujalski has an acute eye for the way people use language and laughter to mask their emotions. A true gem of independent filmmaking.

9. "Syriana"- Stephen Gaghan's effort is the most political film on this list, tackling current issues with grace, resolve and conviction. Juggling an all star cast, multiple continents and often segueing into political undercurrents that had my head spinning, "Syriana" turns an intelligent script into a schizophrenic potboiler.

8. "Throwdown"- Is Johnny To the most underappreciated talent working in Asian cinema today? Probably. Even though he has two other films floating around the festival circuit right now (Breaking News and Election… both receiving no less than raves) "Throwdown" was the film I happened to catch this year. This latest film from the action maestro (though his films are often more about 'inaction') feels like the type of genre film Godard might have made back in the day. Alternating between whimsical fairy tale, flashes of hard edged gangsterism, and kitschy romance, "Throwdown" is exhilarating to watch no matter what genre it tackles. The images of Cherry Ying running (slow motion) down a city street as money sprinkles out of her hand and a lush song blares over the soundtrack is an unmistakable joy to behold.

7. "Kings and Queens"- There's plenty to love in Arnaud Desplechin's two and half hour gabfest. Mathieu Amalric, alone, is worth the price of admission. Following the intersection of two former lovers as they slowly reconnect in life (albeit from far different routes) "kings and Queens" is maddening, heartbreaking, tedious and complex... all the things I love about cinema.

6. "Capote"- Once you get beyond Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote impersonation (and it doesn't take long), director Bennett Miller guides us through a small slice of the writer's life. What soon takes center stage is a compelling series of collisions- collisions between cultures (Kansas and New York), collisions between life and death, and the struggle between the creative process and one's moral compass. Cinematographer Adam Kimmell deserves credit for his evocative cinematography and if Clifton Collins Jr. doesn’t take home the supporting actor award, then the Oscars are rigged (oh well…. This will just give me a reason to complain about someone else next year, like I did last year, and probably will every year the Oscars are around.)

5. "Head-On"- Fatih Akin's German-Hungarian film is epic in every way. A man and woman meet, marry under false pretenses, then spend the rest of the film pretending not to agonize over their feigned relationship. Violent, erotic and wholly compelling, Birol Unel and Sibel Kikilli give beautiful performances. Following their love-hate relationship over the course of five years, at first glance, Akin's couple are sex-addicted, drug-addicted and suicidal. But as the film plays on, glimpses of emotional connection and a sense of shared history (both personal and national) emerge, all of which coalesces into a finale that is sublime.

4. "A History of Violence"- The third film on this list that inspects revenge and the multiple forms it takes, Cronenberg's latest defies expectations as it mutates genre from the inside out and whose every image (and for that matter, line of dialogue) is ripe with double meanings and hidden complexities. After all is said and done, Cronenberg's playful trip of idyllic-life-turned-sour is less about violence and more about the destruction of the nuclear family.

3. "Munich"- Steven Spielberg's masterpiece finally delivers on the mixture of intelligent cinema and heady political comment he's been grappling after for the previous five to six years. From the opening steadicam shot of a group of terrorists quickly shedding their costumes in a dimly lit courtyard to the auspicious images of a man running away from his country in front of the New York skyline, Spielberg is in visual and intellectual command here.

2. "Memories of Murder"- Joon Ho-Bong's film retells the completely unscientific method of tracking a serial killer in South Korea during the 1980's. Devoid of forensic research, the film's lead detectives (Kang Ho-son and Sang Kiyun Kim) instead turn to violence and torture. But that leads them no where. Essentially a whodunit, Joon's film is also about military occupation and the large crevices between investigative skills then and now. Featuring two grandstanding scenes- one as a girl wanders down a lonely, rainy road next to a cornfield and the second the film's final moments as the detective, years later, realizes just how close he might have come to seeing the killer- stand as breathtaking examples of South Korea's vibrant filmmakers and the limitless imagination invested in so many of their films.

1. "Oldboy"- I supose this list could be subtitled "Or How I learned to stop worrying and love asian cinema". The second film in Chan Wook Park's 'revenge trilogy' bustles with carefully choreographed images, sharp humor and a seething rage that is unmatched in recent international cinema. It's interesting that the theme of revenge rattles around in so many films this year (both in theaters and on this list), and while the director Park gleefully rolls this film towards its shocking denouement, it's also a painfully accurate meditation on memory and transformation from child to adult. Watching this film gives me the impression we're seeing something truly electric from an international talent just waiting to begin a long and fulfilling career. The best film of this year.