Sunday, September 30, 2007

The War At Home

It's been suggested that there are upwards of 15 movies either in production or slated for release this fall that deal with the vagaries of America's presence in Iraq. These can be ground level documentaries or creative visualizations, and they can certainly straddle the moral line as they each have something very specific to say about our current occupation there. One of these, Paul Haggis' "In the Valley Of Elah" tracks the implications of war on the home front with staunch restraint and a perfect attention to characterization.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield (the epitome of an American sounding name), "In the Valley of Elah" is essentially a police procedural draped against a military backdrop. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Hank's son goes AWOL. He travels up to the small town close to the military base and is met with indifference by the local police as well as tight-lipness by the military. When a body turns up, mutilated and set on fire in the desert, it turns out to be the body of his son. But finding justice feels like the last thing anyone wants. There are battles over jurisdiction, seemingly stemming from the fact that the government can then cover-up any black marks and the local police won't suffer another unsolved homicide. Eventually, due to Hank's persistence, he wins the trust and affection of female detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Spurred on by her own lack of trust by her largely male staff (that includes wonderful supporting turns by Josh Brolin and Brent Briscoe), Theron portrays Sanders as a wholly believable presence, dressing away her good looks and withering seamlessly into a performance that could have felt pedestrian. Due to his background in the military CID, Hank and Sanders chip away at all sides of the puzzle, eventually realizing some ugly truths in the process.

It's easy to dismiss writer/director Haggis. While I greatly appreciated his script to Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning "Million Dollar Baby", his concurrent Best Picture winner, 2005's "Crash" was a cliched disaster that felt strained and manipulative. With "In the Valley of Elah", Haggis' script could've easily veered into the same territory, but it avoids any of those previous pitfalls and rings immediately true. The acting and delivery of Haggis script is natural and real. Part of this goes to the outstanding cast who resist the basic urge to grandstand, but it's also reflected in Haggis' gentle direction and traditional framing. There are certain scenes that are held for the just the right amount of time (such as a walk down a hospital corridor and several phone conversations between Tommy Lee Jones and wife Susan Sarandon). Jones and Theron (as well as the already mentioned Brolin and Briscoe, but also Jason Patric and James Franco) bounce off each other nicely and Haggis also realizes the importance of reaction shots. Again, everything is understated, punctuating the moral motivations of the film's characters by never allowing dramatics to overtake the progressive flow.

I saw this film after seeing Peter Berg's "The Kingdom" and while that film is certainly more jingoistic, it falls way short of producing honest sentiments about our place in the international arena. Different purposes, granted, but its hard to take a film like that seriously after witnessing the potent structure of "In the Valley of Elah". There are some hard truths put under the microscope here, but "In the Valley of Elah" is not a sternly pro or anti-war picture. It places its ambiguous emotions at the center of a very confusing time in our world's history and presents us with an individual investigation that calls into question not only our actions around the world, but our inability to deal with emotional stability here at home. There's a wonderful subplot that pops up in the beginning of the film that results in disastrous ways towards the end. It seemingly has very little to do with the dead-body plot, but it speaks greatly to the messiness and unpredictability of human life. In small, nuanced ways, Haggis has gotten at much greater truths in fifteen minutes of "In the Valley of Elah" then the entire running time of "Crash".

This review and other theatrical releases can be read at Talking Moviezzz.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

HD DVD Reviews x 3

Black Rain

Released in 1989, Ridley Scott's "Black Rain" is certainly one of the action movies parodied in "Hott Fuzz". You have an exotic setting, a male police friendship that borders on the homosexual, and a climactic fist fight in the rain that culminates the 2 hour and 5 minute running time. But seriously, as for the movie itself, I can't remember why I liked it so much. Maybe because when I first saw it, I was 13? I wonder how this film holds up on VHS or standard DVD because this is a very dark (literally, low-lit) muddled looking film even on HD. Part of the success of HD is the way it deepens the color black so one doesn't get that murky, pixillated feel. That feature pretty much saves "Black Rain". As usual, Ridley lights the entire film through lenses, fog machines, fluorescent lights and neon lights. The HD transfer is very good as it illuminates some of the murky images and allows the shadows of the film to become their own character while giving texture to the neon sets of Hong Kong (which feels like remnants of his "BladeRunner" sets). As for the movie, ehh. But it looks damn good.

Blades of Glory

That same logic goes for "Blades of Glory". I'm sure everyone knows my disdain for Will Ferrell comedies by now,but I will say this is a magical looking transfer. This is probably the crispest and most eye-popping HD DVD film I've seen yet. Too bad there's not much going on as far as entertainment value. You get Ferrell, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler doing their same tired sch tick. Still, the print is gorgeous, detailing individual faces in the backgrounds of the various scenes and really exposing the film's vibrant colors.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

I'm still waiting for the perfectly rendered take on my high school days. The "Dazed and Confused" crowd has their own; the 60's have "Diner" and "American Graffiti". For the 80's not only do you have Judd Apatow's incredibly loving "Freaks and Geeks" saga, but "Fast Times At Ridgemont High". Believe it or not, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" got its own HD DVD transfer. It's been a while since I've seen this, but I can't imagine it looking any better. As with the transfer of most 80's flicks to HD, there's very little upgrade the company can perform on the image itself. HD quality, once again, crispens the background and textures the colors. "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" performs well on the HD format. The detail of the mall is brought out in vivid depictions and it heightens the colors of the characters' wardrobes. But honestly, the one reason to see this is the Phoebe Cates pool scene in HD.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An Appreciation: Abel Ferrara Part 1

Humble Beginnings

My introduction to Abel Ferrara, filmmaker, came in the early 90's. While flipping through a pay movie channel, I came across the images of Harvey Keitel doing various cop things. Since Keitel usually did cop things pretty well, I stuck with the movie, not knowing its title or any background information on anyone except Keitel. By the time "Bad Lieutenant" ended, I was subsequently unnerved, fascinated and energized by the preceeding 80 minutes of framed lunacy. This was obviously a film venturing into dark territory- quasi art, part exploitation but mostly galvanizing. My interest in Abel Ferrara was born and he still remains one of my very favorite artists working in cinema today. He probably plays up his bad boy image a little too much (i.e. all those late 90's pictures of him wearing shades against a beat up leather jacket), but his films often step into the abyss... and that's not always a terrible thing. The poet laurete of the grubby New York film scene, it's no surprise that he evolved into filmmaking through the late 70's exploitation/grindhouse system. Almost all of his films portray a workmanlike empathy, sparse on budget and full on mood. Basically, he's still making grindhouse features today, but they're more polished and invert the genre beautifully. From 1930's era depression chamber piece to the detailed world of drug mixers and female avengers, Ferrara is certainly not a movie-maker for everyone; but there are those of us who choose to plunge into the abyss with him. And that's not a terrible thing either.

Ferrara's first two adventures in filmmaking, "The Driller Killer" (1979) and "Ms .45" (1981) evolved directly from the New York exploitation scene, now beginning to wan due to (insert whatever you wish.. the Hollywood blockbuster, disco). But, like so many previous directors, not only did this genre of film give creative people relatively easy access into movie-making, but they set the standard for a host of Ferrara main-stays. There was the contribution by writer Nicholas St. John, a collaborator with Ferrara for years to come. And there was the simplistic photography of Ken Kelsch. Then there was the seedy urban milieu that Ferrara rarely left (and probably infused every film with more New York than even Scorsese). And there was his style, or anti-style, of filmmaking. Ferrara has never been a flashy director, and never one to call attention to his filmmaking. A majority of his films simply observe (whether we really want to or not) the emotional and psychological parade on-screen, and the early efforts of "The Driller Killer" and "Ms .45" offer no surprises in this category. So much of both films feel like hidden camera footage on the streets of New York, showing all the city's ugliness and deception. Frankly, this very well may've been the case since so many exploitation films were forced to resort to shot making on-the-fly to avoid permit and extraneous fees. The main characters of both films show just as much human ugliness and deception. In "The Driller Killer", which Ferrara began in 1977 after grinding his cinematic teeth in the 70's porn industry, observes the malaise that engulfs the main character (played by Abel himself) when he fails to sell any of his paintings. And more disconcerting than that, his latest piece of a giant buffalo, seems to be the fire-starter of the main character's homicidal impulses. He buys a drill and begins to ply his new found trade on homeless men around the city. And while the main selling point of the film is certainly attuned to the brutal and bloody killings, there's a second side to "The Driller Killer" that's equally fascinating. Ferrara himself stated he made the film mostly "just to stand next to" co-star Baybi Day, who appears just as strung out and disoriented as her character. Mingled amongst the various night time murders, Ferrara tracks the 'hanging out' of his two female roomates (played by Day and Carolyn Marz) as they visit their punk band neighbors and party at Max's (yes, the actual Max's). As stated by Ferrara, "The Driller Killer" was filmed in the shadows of Any Warhol and his factory, and it captures the same melancholy attitude of passing time as many of Warhol's documentaries. Both "The Driller KiIller" and "Ms. 45" are time capsules of a New York city in the late 70's. Even though he produced both films as slasher/female avenger pics respectively, they also exist as contributions that frame specific people in a very specific time. And, whether you agree with their themes or not, they both present New York as a violent and seedy melting pot... a reference that Ferrara would eventually return to in the future.

It would be three years before Ferrara returned behind the camera of a budgeted film. 1984's "Fear City", starring Melanie Griffith and Tom Berenger, certainly upped his "A" list status, but the film is a disappointment. It's narrative about a New York serial killer lacks both originality and flare. This normally isn't a bad thing, but for Ferrara, it definitely felt like slumming. From there, Ferrara found comfort in the confines of the small screen, jumping from project to project such as music videos for Schooly D and the odd directing gig on series such as Michael Mann's produced "Miami Vice" as well as "Crime Story". Perhaps this was the easiest thing Ferrara could do at the time. It was during the mid-80's that he reportedly began shopping his scripts for two films that would later gain momentum, and if settling within the mundane realm of the small screen helped keep him financially self-sufficient, his creative prospects could grow. Next came an Elmore Leonard TV adaptation of "Cat Chaser" in 1988 with Peter Weller that stands as one of the more involving Leonard creations. It's musty, humid feel seeped off the screen and Kelly McGillis is especially good.

If it feels like I'm rushing through a decade here, there's good reason. It wasn't until 1989 that Ferrara would burst from the background with an array of films that reconfigured the independent film movement and firmly established himself as the anti-Scorsese. While the 80's were spent toiling away in exploitative and cheap small screen excursions, Ferrara was about to re-establish some firm connections (with writer Nicholas St. John specifically) in the film industry and unleash two violent, cathartic pictures onto the American public that would simultaneously announce his arrival as well as repulse a large majority of the film-going community.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Trailers I Love

Whether it's the inclusion of Damien Rice's "Grey Room" on the soundtrack (whose music just lends itself beautifully to suburban drama like no one else), or the idea of Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino and Joaquim Phoenix paired together in a dense moral drama, this trailer is incredible. I hope it doesn't convey too much plot.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Finally, nine months into '07 and 70+ films later, I've witnessed a crop of great movies:

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" is a subtle genre piece that shuffles along in hushed dialogue and somber tones. Of course, there's his flair for brutal violence (2 throat slashings and a pretty harsh knife fight) and chameleon-like reversals of fortune amongst the lead characters, but "Eastern Promises" is something different from his previous genre foray, "A History of Violence". While that film certainly reveled in its graphic novel source material, "Eastern Promises" stays fairly straight and plays out Steve Knight's script in orthodox yet intriguing ways. Part of the pleasure with all of Cronenberg's films (but especially his post 1999 work) is the cold, calculated manner in which one interacts with his films. Even though this isn't "Videodrome" or "The Brood", his films tend to stir up tense emotions and one finds themselves carefully studying each and every frame for some deception. In "Eastern Promises", honestly, very few things of startling drama happen. The plot shifts in slow, methodical ways and though these shifts aren't shattering, they continually shed light on an earlier line of dialogue or small gesture which illuminates the shadings of its characters depth. Mortenson's character, especially, goes through an interesting metamorphisis as "Eastern Promises" winds down. And that's probably the most shattering realization of them all. The punch of a Cronenberg film is how cleverly he peels away the surface of the film's drama to reveal something entirely different. It worked wonderfully in "A History of Violence" and it works in "Eastern Promises" as well. This is another strong addition to his body of work.

The Hunting Party

Richard Shepard's "The Hunting Party" is one of those rare cinematic events that I yearn for each time I enter a movie theater. Picture this: you see a trailer for a movie a couple months ago and one of its stars (in this case, the extraordinary Terrence Howard) is a magnetic draw for you. So, the movie opens and very little advance word of mouth has preceeded it, much less have you read any reviews so there's no hyperbole surrounding things. Then you actually see the movie and it's such an energetic, lively, and thrilling experience that your minor expectations are dramatically achieved. Well, my friends, "The Hunting Party" is all that.

Reminiscient of David O' Russell's "Three Kings", "The Hunting Party" is a wildly irreverent trip through a not-so-long-ago part of international warfare known as the Bosnian War. Simon Hunt (Richard Gere, elevating each performance as he grays in life) and Ducky (Howard) are two war-time correspondants charged with covering the war. Their history together, full of being thrown in the middle of hot spots all over the world, consists of bullet dodging and international acclaim. Then, Hunt self destructs during a live interview one day and folds away into the background while Ducky earns his promotion out of the war zones and into the posh lifestyle of filming Senate debates and Presdential campaigns. Six years after the war, Ducky returns to Serbia with his new boss (a consistently humorous James Brolin) and the network's son, played with charm by Jesse Eisenberg. From out of nowhere comes Hunt, full of raging ideas that he knows where to locate the war criminal known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes). Ducky, who's always unable to resist Hunt's insatiable appetite for the dangerous, joins him on his quest with network son in tow. From there, "The Hunting Party" tramples on genre, zig-zagging between political essay, thriller, comedy and melodrama without an ounce of pretension. Director Shepard, who also wrote the screenplay based on an Esquire article, knows no boundaries and not only does each genre work, but he hits natural notes in casting, dialogue delivery and character interaction. It's amazing to watch the small details that Gere and Howard insinuate into their performances, such as their parlance of "fuck" (used liberally in this movie, which propogated several walk-outs during my screening) and the way Howard plays a guitar in the backseat. Also, like Russell in "Three Kings", Shepard uses a dark period in international history to blend comedy and drama in realistic and unflinching ways. Everything in this film works. It's funny when it wants to be funny and it's a bit touching in the revelation of some character's motivations. Its declaration in the opening credits that "only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true" presents its tongue-in-cheek attitude right away, but it also a film that grounds itself in phenominal performances and a sobering narrative that doesn't let us ignore the atrocities caused during this forgotten war fought on another continent. And for those of us wondering, Shepard's playful, Godardian-like style tells us during the end credits which parts of the story where exaggerated and which parts were true. "The Huting Party" is one of the very best films of the year.

Red Road

Andrea Arnold's "Red Road" was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and its no surprise her digitized/modernized update of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is as equally fascinating. Kate Dickie is Jackie, a Glasgow surveillance worker whose overnight work includes the monotonous monitoring of the city's many Closed Circuit Television cameras. Initially watching for crimes, her interest denigrates into people watching, such as a nice older man with a sick dog and a cleaning lady in one of the highrise buildings. But then, her focus becomes transfixed on a man she spots in a dark field fucking a woman. His image dredges back old wounds and she embarks on a mission to confirm or deny her thoughts on who this person really is. It all sounds rather sinister, and Arnold's film is a revelation of intense control and slow-burn tension. Realized and created under a Lars vonTrier Dogma pretense that 3 different directors will coordinate three different films, "Red Road" certainly isn't a film stunt. It's emotions and narrative drive are real, and it also burrows deep into something complex as Jackie carries out her exacting plan for..... something. Go into this film cold, and it'll surprise you. Great stuff.

Triad Election

The second film of 3 released this year on American shores, Johnny To's "Triad Election" carries on his manic attention to style and yakuza violence. Much more subdued, though, is this tale of two men each vying for the hallowed "chairman" seat of the yakuza Society. At times, To's linear story gets lost in his sumptuous visual palette and detailed framing (which continues towards spaghetti western more and more) but there's plenty to enjoy in "Triad Election". I've been shouting to the heavens about To since stumbling across his 2005 masterpiece, "Throwdown", and I'm glad he's finally getting some proper recognition outside of Hong Kong.

Full reviews of theatrical releases can be read at Talking Moviezzz

Saturday, September 15, 2007

On Halloween Past and Present

Oh the wrath that bears down upon the head of a filmmaker when he dares to remake a hallowed classic. That's the current situation with Rob Zombie and his re-visualized version of John Carpenter's "Halloween". This is an interesting position- you've got the Carpenter enthusiasts, such as Piper at Lazy Eye Theater, rallying (sight unseen) at the mere presence of Zombie's movie and then you have those who just wanna go see a bloody, gory horror movie, regardless of the creative eye behind the camera or even the film's trampling of an American classic. Granted, I've seen Zombie's "Halloween" now and even I find myself in some discussions over the merits (or lack thereof) with friend and horror-buff Chris at his blog . This movie has sparked more debate in me than any other in the last couple months. Is that good or bad? And do I like "Halloween" or not?

Let's put it this way- I was not averse to Zombie's remake when I first heard about it. I've seen the original "Halloween" a couple times and can appreciate the standards it set and broke in its day, but it's not the epitome of horror films for me. It falls in that mediocre category that I appreciate more than favor. I much prefer Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness" and "In the Mouth of Madness", films I witnessed without an ounce of pre-conceived hyperbole attached to them. My first viewing of "Halloween" when I was 15 or 16, was already heralded as the standard slasher flick, produced on a shoe-string and manufactured with an intense lack of exposition surrounding its main character. Not knowing why or how Michael Myers became the hulking killer certainly provided Carpenter's flick with an added sense of psychological superiority, but didn't register with me as anything more. It followed the same slasher rules, provided the same slick scares, and honestly, provided me with very little except a theme song that I hummed for days.

Compare that with the feature debut of Rob Zombie entitled "House of 1,000 Corpses"- dumped into theaters in October '03 after numerous production closings, financial backing issues, and a ratings board fiasco. No one, even myself, gave it much thought. It felt like a nice diversion during October of that year so a few of us went to see it. Not only did I love it, but was a bit shocked at how far the film rolls down the rabbit hole. Zombie isn't a master of the subtle, like Carpenter, but "House of 1,000 Corpses" tapped into something primal and exploitative. I've mentioned before, but the film's final 30 minutes diverge into something very dark and morbid and no one expected that type of cinematic manipulation from Zombie. It's one of the finest exploitation films of the last few years.

So, in my personal universe, the stars were aligned to make Rob Zombie's "Halloween" a smashing success. How did this all go so wrong? Zombie's "Halloween" is a shrill, empty failure. I don't care that he gives Myers a backstory... I don't care that the film failed to keep me interested.. and I certainly don't care that it features such gaping plot holes that one could drive an 18 wheeler through. My main concern with the film, and Rob Zombie himself, is that he's shrinking any talents he revealed in his feature debut. He's made this movie before... we've seen these characters before... and if he uses the term "skullfuck" in one more scene, I think I might walk out. Not only does he (again) use his wife, Moon Zombie, and actors such as Sid Haig, William Forsyth, Bill Moseley, but they act in the same manner as they have in every Zombie movie. Repeating oneself, whether its in a new genre, new year or new voice, is still repeating oneself.

This really should be no surprise, I suppose. The shortcomings were already evident in Zombie's second film, "The Devil's Rejects", but the massive tone of the film's loud, obnoxious narrative supplied it with some breathing room. In"Halloween", Zombie's complete dis-regard for character development and natural speech patterns are thrown out the window. If this is meant as an exercise in parody of the horror genre, then we're getting somewhere, but the way Zombie films the murder scenes, makes me think otherwise. The first kill of Myers as a young boy is shot in long distance, through a few branches away from the scene as if someone was watching the murder take place. It lends itself that exploitative feel. That's the essence of true exploitative filmmaking- it makes the viewer complicit in its ugliness. If Zombie wanted to play everything for laughs, then it would've been visualized in less personal terms. Instead, no... "Halloween" definitely wants us to take it seriously. Even more disconcerting is Zombie's awkward use of music in his films. In "The Devil's Rejects" we're treated to an ultra-serious finale in which the death-gasp of its characters is timed to Lynryd Skynyrd's "Free Bird". I hated that scene when I first saw it and hate it even more now. In "Halloween", Zombie attempts to affix surface emotions to the young Michael Myers and his stripper mom by juxtaposing their empty night lives against the theme of Nazareth's "Love Hurts". It's yet another inept move in a completely inept film experience. So, for those of you who worship the original, I don't think this one will be around long enough to cause you much pain. The one good part of seeing this film? I was in Springfield, Missouri on business and instead of sleeping away the time in my banal hotel room, I decided to venture out into the thriving college town and experience some local flavor. The theater, something called The Springfield 8, looks to be the oldest damn theater in Missouri. Not only is it one of those rare single floor theaters, full of gold curtains right out of the 70's, but a place that houses those short, plush chairs that no one makes anymore. If only the film lived up to the theater-going experience.

Monday, September 10, 2007

HD DVD Review- Out of Sight and 12 Monkeys

Out of Sight

We start with the better transfer of the two titles mentioned. Steven Soderbergh's nouvelle-vague like noir, released in 1998, became an instant favorite of mine. I loved the sexy performance of Jennifer Lopez (than a relative unknown outside of "Selena" fans) and her chemistry with George Clooney, I loved the little freeze-frames that Soderbergh used to Godardian proportions, and I loved the film's shifts between humor and violence. It all felt so vivid. And the HD transfer enhances that experience. While "Out of Sight" isn't the absolute best HD print I've seen so far, it does convey a sense of picture upgrade that's interesting. Perhaps Soderbergh's style- that desaturated, hand held look that feels passe by now- limits some of its upgrade potential, but the warm colors of Miami juxtaposed against the whites of winter Detroit do feel much more expressed in this HD-DVD. But perhaps the strength of the transfer lies in the finale, when the shades of light, dark and color really impress. For those who know, the film's denouement takes place during a robbery of a large mansion (owned by an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks). The warm interiors of the house jump out with clarity. I certainly don't remember noticing this in the original version. The film's lost none of its initial charm, and the high defness only reminds me how great of a movie this is.

12 Monkeys

I wrote earlier on this blog that it'd been awhile since I'd seen "12 Monkeys" and remember 'flipping for it'. I'm not sure why I flipped so much, because this was a chore to get through. Perhaps I hadn't seen Chris Marker's "La Jetee" yet, which is why I found something special and mind-blowing in Terry Gilliam's post modern make-over of Marker's sublime sci-fi classic. Well, I've seen the original and while that film holds so much beauty and emotion (in still images, no less), Gilliam's film is...maddening. Gilliam is a director I never understood. His films profit in cluttered settings, obnoxious characters, and a stream-of-conscious dialogue that makes me nauseous. I've yet to make it through "Brazil" (and tried about 3-4 times), couldn't finish "Tideland" and almost walked out of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". His films just don't appeal to me. Then you have "12 Monkeys", a film that features all of the characteristics above and makes me even hate Madeline Stowe for inhabiting a character who yells almost every one of her lines. Then there's Brad Pitt, playing a mental patient who almost drove me nuts by his blathering and showy performance. Honestly, I usually have a good barometer on the films I see, and how I once praised "12 Monkeys" is beyond me. Now, for the HD transfer itself? Equally as shitty. There's very little upgrade in the picture quality, at times looking worn and smudged. I wondered if there was something wrong with my player until I went online and read some HD DVD excerpts on this film. It's not my player, but just a generally lazy transfer that has no redeeming HD qualities. Skip this one for that (and so many other) reasons.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bloody Good Time

Showtime appears to be giving HBO a run for its money in the adult drama category. I just finished up the first season of Showtime's "Dexter". While not quite on par with some HBO fare, this is still one very good television series. Starring Michael C. Hall (David from "Six Feet Under"), "Dexter" follows the very dark story of a Miami forensics lab expert who nighthawks as a serial killer, dispensing his own brand of vigilante justice while at the same time cooling the internal clickings that drive him to commit murder. It's an odd choice for a protagonist, but once America falls under the charms of an overweight hit man and his jovial bunch in the guise of Tony Soprano, I guess the sky's the limit for conflicted anti-heroes. And, honestly, while "Dexter" takes a couple of episodes to process its uneven tone and bleak Bret Easton Ellis style of empty voice-over, the show really begins to grow on one. Not only does it illuminate itself as a wrenching and funny black comedy, but its a police drama that works as well. Just when you feel the series is drawing itself into a corner, there a plausible side alley that opens up and fits neatly into the story. What at first appears like a plot hole, soon evolves into an intelligently constructed exit device. But there's more than one character at work here. The supporting characters (like in all great series) are just as fleshed out as Dexter himself. There's his police sister (a character played with exuberance and sensitivity by Jennifer Carpenter, mrs. "Exorcism of Emily Rose" herself, I role I didn't even pick up on until checking out IMDB) and girlfriend (Julie Benz), both important and influential figures in Dexter's life. Not only does he constantly worry about controlling his homicidal impulses, but forces himself to lead a normal life and tuck away his dark side. If that wasn't enough, a majority of the first season details his cat-and-mouse relationship with a fellow serial killer who drains his victim's blood and leaves neatly severed pieces in unique figures around Miami. This killer opens up a game with Dexter, challenging him as each new victim turns up. This all sounds very CSI-induced, but there's an extreme charm to the morbid affairs. Hall plays Dexter perfectly, eventually inviting us to sympathize with a character forced to manipulate his world and cover up an unnatural side. Anyone who's ever smiled when they didn't feel like it or forced to conform in a room where they certainly don't want to be can identify (partially) with the show's theme of Jekyll and Hyde emotions. "Dexter" is now out on DVD and for the more adventurous (beware, the blood in this show is quite shocking), I think you won't be disappointed in Showtime's attempt to expand the character driven series into new realms.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Short Films I Love

Check out this very good short film from a young and upcoming director. I won't give away any more than that. Thanks to Atom films, a site that I could easily lose 6 hours a day to.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #9

Here are a few more titles in the queue. It feels like it took me forever to shuffle through the previous ten. And fyi.. I have a few ideas in the works for future posts. Not only will I continue hot and heavy with HD-DVD reviews, but I'm anxious to get back to some director appreciation posts. So, after reading this story about the intent to re-visualize Bad Lieutenant as well as Ferrera's minor success at this years Cannes fest with his latest film, it got me re-thinking about how much I've always loved his work. Ferrera is a filmmaker who divides audiences, and his films have routinely popped up on my favorites lists each year (even the much maligned and seemingly forgotten "Dangerous Game" with Madonna in 1994.... a searing experience that deserves yet another view). So, not just 1 post, but I intend on writing a three part series on his career later this month. Enough self promotion. Here's what slated to be in my mailbox soon.

1. Like It Never Was Before- I just saw Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding" and found it to be an extremely moving film, one of my favs of the year so far. With that one and "Things We Lost In the Fire, due up later this fall, she's on track to have a stellar year. "Like It Never Was Before" is one of her early films. If you've seen her work, its hard to expect anything but an honest examination of wayward relationships and deep seated emotions.
2. Crime Story Season 1 (5 discs)-Michael Mann produced mid-80's cop series that I've never seen. Bonus points that Abel Ferrera directs several episodes.
3. 12 Monkeys (HD DVD)-I can only say I've seen this once, several years ago, but remember flipping for it. I'm trying to pick out assorted HD DVD films that I've only seen once or twice.
4. Zhmurki- Russian gangster film from acclaimed director Aleksei Balbanov ("Brother" and "Of Freaks and Men").
5. Out of Sight HD DVD- Ok. So I know I just said I'm trying to rent HD DVD titles I've only seen once or twice, but I've seen "Out of Sight" countless times and can't wait to see Jennifer Lopez sparkle in hi-def glory. Confession accepted?
6. Fall Guy- Yet another insanely kinetic gangster film from Kenji Fukasaku.
7. Heading South- French director Laurent Cantent turned all kinds of critical heads with his first two films, "Human Resources" and "Time Out". Then last year he released this film about 3 women who go on a trip and lust over a younger man. Is it bad or was it just met with indifference?
8. Wrong Move- Being a huge Wim Wenders fan, I jumped when I saw this available on DVD. I assume its part of the recent box set that was released. I may have seen an old VHS copy of this years ago, but honestly cannot remember a single frame so its worth re-visiting.
9. Tokyo Trash Baby- Still working my through the available titles of Japanese filmmaker Ryuichi Hiroki ("Vibrator"), this one is next. Sounds intriguing (in that nasty Japanese sorta way): Instead of acting on her feelings for the scruffy musician (Kazuma Suzuki) who lives next door, Miyuki (Mami Nakamura), a shy and lonely Tokyo waitress, settles for sifting through his trash, in hopes that she can get to know him better by the things he throws away. Like "Vibrator", Hiroki seems fascinated by the disconnections of couples in modern day Japan.
10. True Confessions- Ulu Grosbard's attempt to reconfigure the Black Dahlia story got tremendously positive word-of-mouth when it was newly released to DVD earlier this year. I have no excuse for never seeing it. Quasi film noir, Robert DeNiro, Catholicism... I'm there.