Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Films from Opposite Corners of the World

Eytan Fox's "Walk On Water" covers some of the same ground as Steven Speilberg's Munich, albeit in much more modest terms. Eyal, (Lior Ashkenazi, an actor who should be destined for international stardom with his dashing good looks and cerebral portrayal of inner turmoil) is a MOSSAD agent whose specialty is assassinating Nazi war criminals through lethal injection. His next assignment turns out to be the hunt for an 86 year old Nazi commander who is still believed to be alive. In order to ascertain whether this fact is true or not, Eyal is asked to impersonate an Israeli tour guide and get comfortable with the nazi commander's grandson when he arrives for a visit. Eyal gets to know the grandson, Axel Himmelman (Knut Berger) and granddaughter Pia (Caroline Peters) as he leads them around the city. All of the story's tension builds around the fundamental question of can Eyal carry out his mission after forming a unique relationship with his target's grandchildren? Director Fox adroitly underscores subtle moral complexities within the story. This is not a film that dwells on the tensions of the assassinations like Munich. Fox instead focuses on the slow immersion of Eyal into the secular and humane beliefs of Axel and Pia. To complicate matters, Axel is homosexual, a lifestyle in stark contrast to Eyal beliefs. The connection these two make by the end of the film is surprising and moving. The manner of Eyal's assassination method is also emblematic of Fox's almost subliminal handling of the film's moral center- lethal injection, requiring that Eyal comfortably wedge himself close enough to strike his victim. "Walk On Water" also confronts the wavering guilt that has slowly built inside Eyal after committing so many murders (both on the job and in his personal life), and like "Munich", this guilt exposes itself in an ending that is both humble and miraculous. Highly recommended film. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Why is the western such an enduring genre? Is it because it gives filmmakers the freedom to present globally profound ideas against a (highly) picturesque background? Or is it because the genre lends itself to stories that resonate with our innate sense of the past and our progression from rugged determination to technological advancement? Either way, Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a brutally honest and unflinching portrait of a profound idea (redemption) situated against that picturesque backdrop. Written by Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams, Amorres Perros), he tackles this story with the same sense of fractured fervor that punctuates those stories. While the first 45 minutes or so keeps you guessing about the timelines, jumping between the budding friendship of Tommy Lee Jones and his friend Melquiades (Julio Cidillo) and the new arrival of Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his perky, short-skirted wife (Melissa Leo), Arriaga's script doesn't feel ambivalent and unnecessary like it did in his previous efforts. Each character is given weight and pretense, and while the inextricable connections between all four eventually becomes clear in a harrowing manner, Tommy Lee Jones is the kindred spirit behind this film, turning in a performance that's both slightly off-kilter and wonderous in his quiet intensity. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" deftly builds towards a journey through the Texas and Mexico landscape with Jones and Pepper that's frightening and intoxicating. Parts of the film (the insertion of a blind man in the middle of nowhere, a female "healer" in a small town) play like great excerpts from a Faulkner novel and, ultimately, as with most westerns, the journey through the desolate landscape becomes the unspoken crux of the film. As a first time director, Jones' images are crisp and straight forward and he elicits strong supporting roles from January Jones and Dwight Yoakem, a tremendously funny actor in almost every scene as the town's local sheriff. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" takes the western as its pretext and paints a moving portrait of two men in search for something more than a burial ground for Melquiades, a casualty of territorial and ethnic injustice. But then again, isn't that what a great western does?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tops in pops '05

1) The Mars Volta, "Frances the Mute"- Head and shoulders above everything else I listened to this year, "Frances The Mute" is a stunning album in every sense of the word. Channeling the long lost ghost of Led Zeppelin, FM radio play and prog-rock with a vengeance, they throw everything at you in this 75 minute opus. More free-form and improvisatory than their previous album, this is one helluva great cd to get lost with.

2) Explosions In the Sky, "How Strange, Innocence"- This quartet from Austin, Texas will never hit it big. Why? They're four guys who play instrumental pieces without a single word! I discovered this band by accident late in the year and their sound (a cross between Mogwai and the repetitive background fuzz of early Sonic Youth) builds to hugely satisfying crescendos. This album, entitled "How Casual, Innocence" was released in '05, but it's a remix of eight early demo songs that never got off the ground after they formed in 2000. Just as I was conducting more research on these guys, I kept thinking how perfect their moody music would be for soundtracks, then I realized a lot the unique music in the film Friday Night Lights is courtesy of Explosions In the Sky. I can't recommend this band enough. It's always engaging when you discover a band you feel no one else has heard before.

3) Smile, Smile- "Smile Smile"- This debut EP from Dallas male and female duo Jencey and Ryan Hamilton (and the inferences to The White Stripes must be infuriating) is deceptively simple. Lush melodies are overlapped against keyboard, guitar and a mechanized drum beat, creating some of the most oddly moving sounds of the year.

4) My Morning Jacket, "Z"- Whatever one wishes to classify My Morning Jacket under (alt-country, bluegrass, rock fusion), after three albums it's clear they're here to stay. "Z" is an all-out exploration of genre and sound, easily swooning between 70's style rock and lazy alternative country. This one stayed in my cd player for three months straight.

5) Gorillaz, "Demon Days"- Former Blur frontman Daman Albarn took refuge with his band Gorillaz (really no more than himself splurging in the studio and inviting various musical personalities, and Dennis Hopper, to join in the fun) and this second album progresses his playful and irreverent sense of hip hop, electronica and…. Gospel? At first glance, this all seems like a mess. But on repeat listens, there's a definite method to this album's madness. The tunes become hypnotic and tell unique stories, either through spoken word or through the way Albarn's voice suddenly becomes clear after mumbling. It's all very subtle… and brilliant.

6) Coldplay, "X/Y"- Let the bashing begin. Wasn't there a cute little line about me being gay if I liked Coldplay tossed into a film somewhere this year? Oh well. I’m comfortable with my masculinity, and I still love Coldplay.