Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thoughts On 30 Days of Night

David Slade's "30 Days of Night" has 3 things going for it: 1) unnerving sound editing 2) an atmospheric setting and 3) some genuinely terrifying vampires. This film far exceeded my expectations and certainly will make my 2008 'films that give me the willies' list.

I'd be interested in reading the graphic novel this film is based on. I'm not a huge fan of those types of writing, but they seem to offer an intriguing and entertaining outlook on weary genre tales (such as "From Hell" and even "Sin City", a film that I admired more than actually liked). Certain scenes in "30 Days of Night" feel tailor-made for the square frame images that a comic graphic novel would highlight... the image of a man and woman sitting on the crest of a snowy hill as the sun rises up or the close-up of a Renfield-like face filling the frame. Also, the violence in this film strongly reverberates. I couldn't count on one hand the number of beheadings (one of which is shown in shocking close-up as the head hangs loosely attached to the body by veins and arteries) or brutal tears into chunks of skin. There's even the beheading of a little girl vampire that most films would cut away from. "30 Days of Night" almost celebrates in it. I'm surprised there weren't more edits needed for
an R rating.

And to mention the vampires themselves. These are some of the most visually terrifying vampires ever imagined. Trust me, they aren't your grandparents vampires, the suave and pale faced vampires of Hammer (no offense). The vampires in "30 Days of Night" are something new and ferocious. Led by Danny Huston, they embody the features of classical and modern vampire traits, meshing the pale faced simplicity of "Nosferatu" with the bone breaking ferocity of the zombies in "28 Days Later". Not only do they drink blood, but due to their angled and sharp teeth, these are creatures that tear and violate the skin like hungry wolves. These vampires mean business and it lends an air of brutality to their gorge-fest. You actually want the heroes (Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Mark Boone Junior and a host of others) to not get caught by this primal group. And if a filmmaker gets that right, then you've won half the battle of audience involvement.

"30 Days of Night" actually gave me nightmares after seeing this movie, although in all fairness to my man-card, I was sleeping in a hotel room that same night so my bearings of common ground were waaaay off. Still, that's a major success for a horror movie. I rarely get disturbed by this genre of film and when it does happen, then I know its something special. This is a great entry into our vampire movie genre and a nice way to spend Halloween week at the movies. It's also nice to see a non 'torture porn' flick getting some cred at the box office this time of year, although it looks like the 103rd or whatever number of "Saw" raked in the dough. Sad.

And don't forget to check out the unveiled 31 Films That Give You the Willies list.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

An Appreciation: Abel Ferrara Part 3

Not Made In the USA

In a video taped interview, Abel Ferrara was asked what motivated him and he replied (in his usual droll, gravelly tone) that he got up each morning, and that was all the motivation he needed. If that was an honest reply, and not endemic of his cantankerous presence around interviews and media types, then that motivation was about to be put to the test.

After "The Funeral" in 1996, Ferrara saw major studio funding come to a halt. Whether it was his disheveled working attitude or the public's waning attention in his pessimistic and hard-bitten tales, Ferrara began shopping his ideas overseas. It didn't take long to find international financing, and in an oddly positive way, this separation from studio money allowed Ferrara to open his films up more. As is often the case, European backing gives more freedom to creative artists, and Ferrara was not one to let the grass grow beneath his feet. Starting in 1997 with "The Blackout" his films became more loose and experimental, basing their stories in mood and idea rather than pragmatic narratives. Whether his visions were following an addicted Hollywood director through a maze of booze, drugs and (possibly) murder, or documenting the mostly mundane world of Puerto Rican drug selling in New York, Ferrara dispensed with old styles and invented new ones. While this phase of his career is no better or worse than the rest, it surely has been the one less seen by the movie-going public.

"The Blackout" was accepted to the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and that was the largest audience the film received before living its life on home video. Mostly fascinating for its introduction to Ferrara's new visual applications (namely the Avid editor that allows more freedom than traditional editing devices), "The Blackout" is nonetheless a maddening experience in every way possible. Starring Matthew Modine as Matty, a hot shot Hollywood director, he decamps to Miami to pick up his relationship with French actress Annie (Beatrice Dalle). When she leaves him due to his excessive drug and alcohol addiction, Matty goes on a bender with fellow artist Micky (a truly bat-shit crazy turn by Dennis Hopper) and meets a nice waitress also named Annie (Sarah Lassez). Matty blacks out and we're transported 18 months after this night where Matty is back in New York and married to Claudia Shiffer. But images of murder continually creep into Matty's subconscious. Add to his depression that Annie may have been pregnant and had an abortion, and Matty returns to Miami to figure out what happened during his drug-induced blackout. Ferrara's attraction to problem-addled directors (including Keitel's sexually conflicted turn in "Dangerous Game) is clearly a theme Ferrara wants to explore. Here, we're given multiple sides to the director-as-a-personality and neither Modine nor Hopper give much hope to this profession. One continually escapes reality through abuse and the other is completely lost in the fabrication and creation of his video/film- even obsessed enough to allow murder to not compromise his artistic vision. "The Blackout" is a very dark portrayal of filmmaking. While it's not widely celebrated as a success, its a film that works well in mood. It's here that Ferrara began to play with the slow dissolve rather than cut, and those slow lurid transitions highlight the splintered dementia of Matty. Certainly the most dream-like of all his films, "The Blackout" is also Ferrara's "Vertigo", or more specifically his "Lost Highway", a film also released in 1997 that paints time and memory with the same nightmarish brush. Hammered by most critics, "The Blackout" fared even worse on home video where its production company chose to immortalize the 10 second scene within the film where Matty and Mickey join two drug selling brunettes who get high with them and make out together. Their lesbian embrace was used as the cover art for the release on VHS and DVD, further marginalizing Ferrara as a purveyor of cheap sleaze. "The Blackout" deserved better.

The very next year Ferrara produced "New Rose Hotel" and his strike-out with a large release was again noticeable. I'm not sure if a crowd would've helped this film any. Starring Christopher Walken and two names that would re-appear 10 years later in "Go- Go Tales", Willem DaFoe and Asia Argento, "New Rose Hotel" is a muddled and visually cluttered tale of corporate espionage in a futuristic setting. Adapted from a short story by William Gibson, the film wallows in dreamy slow motion shots and exhaustive dialogue that fails to energize any of the plot points.

Ferrara rebounded just three years later with the release of "R-Xmas", capitalizing on the success of HBO's "The Sopranos" and landing lead roles for Drea de Matteo and Lillio Brancato as, simply, the Husband and the Wife, who lead perfectly upscale New York lives, purchasing the hottest Christmas presents for their daughter and happily dancing with friends and family on Christmas Eve. But there's a dark side to their existence as Ferrara follows them to a separate apartment where they methodically cut and store cocaine for their lucrative drug business. One of his best films in years, "R-Xmas" is a simple documentation of the mundane details of this couple's lives- that is until Ice T shows up and kidnaps the Husband, bribing the Wife for all the money they have. From that halfway point in the film, Ferrara's leisurely focus shifts into a tense, unrelenting quest as the Wife attempts to gather all the money she can. The stylistic choices of Ferrara return to form; there are the long medium shots, strategically placed on the corners of the various New York apartments so a seemingly innocent pan can follow the characters around in medium shot for minutes at a time. Over a third of the film follows the Husband's Puerto Rican accomplices (one of whom is played by Ferrara regular Victor Argo) as they speak in their native tongue, non-subtitled and all. And Ferrara's fascination with the dissolve over the hard cut permeates every inch of the film, creating images that linger against one another in poetic fashion. There's a raw authenticity to the entire film that pulsates even before the tempo is upped by the kidnapping plot device. It's a strong film that was highly regarded by New York critics, but found little fanfare with anyone else.

Around 2003, Ferrara moved from New York to Rome where he now calls home. Both of his next two films were created on the legendary Cinecitta sound stages. "Mary", concerning a filmmaker's passion to create a film about Mary Magdalene that comes crashing down around him (starring Matthew Modine in what sounds like yet another brutal analogy of movie-making as a profession) and this year's "Go Go Tales" were written about widely at their various festival debuts. Both have their strong supporters and their adamant detractors. The polarization of his work continues to this day. While "Go Go Tales" has yet to be released outside of Cannes, there is talk of this film being released on an independent scale early in '08. Being hailed as Ferrara's ode to Cassavetes and "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie", its most talked about aspect is the fact that actress Asia Argento plays a stripper whose on-stage antics include french kissing a rottweiler. It's nice to know Ferrara hasn't softened in his old age.

It's been rumored that Ferrara is currently in pre-production on a prequel to "King of New York". Whether that return to the mean streets of New York is needed to elevate him back into the public consciousness remains to be seen. Whether this film makes it to American shores or not, it's good to know that Ferrara has not given up. As long as he continues to create personal works, I'll continue to respect and admire a vision that represents truths hardly seen on the movie screen. The idea that a filmmaker can create disturbing, alienating works is certainly reasonable. There are many filmmakers whose visions I don't enjoy. But with Ferrara, the collision of disturbing images, messy and improvised moments, and uncomfortable themes of Catholic guilt make him even more interesting. His films have carved a special space out of recognizable territory. White it's easy to revoke his films for their informal style and messy composition, it's less than easy to shake the power of his message. We're all fucked up in some way and redemption is just around the corner for those who choose to accept it. His characters are often addicted and malicious personalities, but they reveal shades of hope as well. It's all in how you perceive things. Here's to hoping we get another 17 films from Abel Ferrara.

Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 1 here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


It's been a busy couple weeks of movie-watching. Below are some capsule thoughts. Some are excerpts that can be read in full (along with other film reviews) at Talking Moviezzz.

Gone Baby Gone

"Gone Baby Gone", the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, is imbued with a strong sense of local favor and the film succeeds best when its focused on the drunken, belligerent recesses of shoddy Boston pubs and hangouts. As a moral thriller though, it's less impactful than Eastwood's treatment on crime and punishment ("Mystic River", also from a Dennie Lehane novel) and Affleck is certainly not as deft in handling the film's complex deviations. There's one shoot-out scene in particular that feels clumsy and patched together without any real sense of logistical placement (i.e. after being chased up a flight of stairs and shot at, why would someone just lean against the door they just ran behind.... why not shoot through it?). Also, there are several overlapping pieces of dialogue that feel rushed, as if Affleck and company were running out of ways to present the film's tumultuous twists and turns with pace and clarity. While there are strong individual moments (namely the performance of Casey Affleck and Ed Harris), "Gone Baby Gone" is ultimately underwhelming in its sledgehammer approach in explaining the moral complexities of its individuals. Do we really need all those flashbacks to fill in the narrative blanks? And while novelist Lehane is most assuredly capable of grasping the more subtle -and deadly- undercurrents of denouements (think of that final shattering scene in "Mystic River"), that subtlety is gone in this film. Less is certainly more.

The Situation

More of a curiosity for being the first feature length film to tackle our presence in Iraq post 9-11, "The Situation" allows director Philip Haas to handle the various conflicts with determination and intelligence. This is more about the mosaic of people who dot the dusty landscape rather than a war movie (though there is some well staged violence in the final moments). Starring Connie Nielsen as a journalist covering the bloodshed, she finds herself mixed up in love triangle between CIA operative Dan (Damian Lewis) and optimistic fellow journalist Zaid (Mido Hamada). Make no mistake- while "The Situation" contrives such a melodramatic predicament, it's very smart about the internal politics of the region and the hatred that boils over when several factions of religious groups vie for control. It's also a very sharp dissection of military ambivalence towards unchecked aggression. Haas (whose previous films include the well made "Angels and Insects" from 1995 and "Up at the Villa" in 2000) takes a stance on his feelings about this period in our history, but "The Situation" also examines the conflict from opposing sides which lends the film an unusually respectful tone. This honesty stems from the personal experience of journalist Wendell Steavenson who co-wrote the script. And Nielsen is spectacular.


"Rendition" straddles the line between good and not-so-good, presenting yet another view about post 9-11 hypocrisy and policy making that features A-list actors banging out solid (yet ordinary) actions. We understand who'll be vindicated and who'll have a change of black heart halfway through. A-list stars hate portraying anything except the eventual savior, right? But there is one expertly crafted surprise in "Rendition" that takes place out of context with the bureaucratic superiority of the film's main plotline. Throughout the film, we learn and follow the daughter of Abasi, played by Zineb Oukach. I figured out fairly early on what the plot twist with her boyfriend Khalid would lead to and it felt unnecessary at the time. But director Gavin Hood doesn't tilt his hand until the very end, and when that realization comes, it doesn't feel like a gimmick, but a wisely structured motivation for the actions of father Abasi. Ultimately, "Rendition" is about two families and the consequences of religion and politics on both. I would've liked to experience more with the family of Abasi and Fatima, but since "Rendition" is more about the injustice to a perfect and rich Chicago family, the details of the more interesting family are left to fill in the cracks.

Michael Clayton

One can't deny the poetic rat-a-tat-tat delivery of much of Tony Gilroy's script for "Michael Clayton" and, up until the final 10 minutes, I felt like this film was headed for something special. Not only do Clooney/Wilkinson/Swinton embrace every scene with head-on authenticity and lack of vanity, but Gilroy's direction is crisp and well-structured. But then the end- and it comes as a whimper instead of a bang. This is territory done before in numerous legal thrillers and while "Michael Clayton" hides its blandness in rich dialogue that comes in clipped speeds, it's still holds a been-there-done-that feeling. Perhaps the hype killed this one for me.

The Darjeeling Limited

After all the aforementioned somber affairs, I needed some light-heartedness. It'd be easy to rail against Anderson for refusing to grow up and pushing his cinematic visions forward, but that's a lazy complaint. There are plenty of modern filmmakers who tackle a given subject two/three times over in various environments and milieus (I'm thinking of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and even Werner Herzog). It's not how many times they do it, but how well they do it. And "The Darjeeling Limited" does it very well. A great bonus to seeing this film was the inclusion of Anderson's 12 minute short, "Hotel Chevalier" before the main feature, humorously established through a title that read "A Short Film- to be seen before the feature". Not only does it prepare us, visually, for Anderson's rigorously constructed mise-en-scene, but it enriches the upcoming story due to its attention to the human interaction that all three brothers eventually run away from. There's talk about their lives back home, such as the upcoming birth of a baby for 1 brother and the attempted suicide of the other, but rarely does Anderson ever show us physical glimpses of that fear. Think of the humor provided behind the death of Ben Stiller's wife in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as he ritualized his fire escape plan or the many occurrences of fatherly abandonment there and in "The Life Aquatic". In "Hotel Chevalier", it may be a slight example, but the motivation for Schwartzman to run away is there and it creates a secondary world outside of "The Darjeelings Limited" exotic and at times cartoonish landscape. The references to "Hotel Chevalier" continue to creep up in the later longer film, but its not necessary to understanding (or appreciating) "The Darjeeling Limited". As expected, the three brothers' trip exposes them to human sadness, sexuality, and remorseful memories and it probably buries deeper into sadness than any previous Wes Anderson film. There's a well handled lapse into darker territory about halfway through "The Darjeeling Limited", and the way Anderson confronts this shift proves that he's growing as a filmmaker. Stylistically, one will immediately recognize the aesthetics of the film. The detailed colors, the pop soundtrack, the lateral camera moves as well as the whip pans substituting for cuts- its not a huge departure but its still effective. "The Darjeeling Limited" will please those who admire the previous whimsy of Anderson and hopefully attract a new audience unfamiliar with his vibrant outlook on the world.

Day Night Day Night

This is a superb film. Imagine what the Dardennes Brothers would do with the story of a female terrorist going through the motions of her last 2 days on earth before carrying out a suicide bombing in Times Square, and you begin to scratch the surface of Julia Loktev's spellbinding feature. Riveting from first scene to last, actress Luisa Williams lays everything on the screen as the camera perches just over her shoulder or cements her face dead-center. There's one scene in particular, that builds to unbearable tension, then releases us over the edge just to delay the tension more. Not only is Loktev's camera penetrating, but her commentary on modern times intelligent. See this one if you can.

Things We Lost In the Fire

I love the films of Susanne Bier and found her previous 2007 film, "After the Wedding" to be one of the best of this year. "Things We Lost In the Fire", her latest release, continues her fascination with suburban ennui and tragic circumstance by placing Halle Berry at the receiving end of a murdered husband (David Duchovney), two precocious children and her dead husband's heroin-junkie best friend (Benicio DelToro). It's not that the film is bad by any means, just less emotionally damaging than her previous efforts. Perhaps something was truly lost in translation as this is her first English language film. Still, it's a film that avoids the easy narrative plot holes and Del Toro is remarkable. I found myself much more involved with the relationship of Duchovney and Del Toro than anything else in the film, though. Their relationship is nicely sketched out. Duchovney continues to care for his best friend, show up for his birthday and buy him groceries when everyone else is ready to carve his name on a tombstone. We all bring our own experiences and recollections into a film, and this relationship hit home especially. I've dealt with a similar friendship, seeing a best friend become disillusioned and sink into addiction. He'll drop off the radar and it'll be months before I hear from him again (as is currently the case now). All I can do is hope he's found a stable girlfriend and not lapse into a darker environment. When everyone else (including members of his own family and our own old circle of friends) has written him off, nothing will change our friendship. "Things We Lost In the Fire" observes this same type of friendship with clarity and it overshadows the more central relationship between Berry and Del Toro later. I wanted less of that and Duchovney to live longer with his junkie friend.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Longest Commercial Ever?

All I can say is.... TV advertising space must be cheap in Alabama.

Friday, October 19, 2007

On Air Funnies

It may take a few viewings to fully appreciate the above clip, so allow me some backstory. One of my favorite radio stations here in Dallas, 1310 The Ticket, is a sportstalk radio station that spends more time cutting up and talking about movies and current events rather than sports. Basically, they keep me company about 6 hours a day. One of their guys, Tom Gribble, performed an interview as a joke about 2 years ago- the kicker is that he asked his question during the post game interview in the style of a "1920's Reporter Guy", using expressions like 'the bees knees'. This turned into a regular schtick, and in the last 2 years, he's maneuvered his way into post game interviews with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Peyton Manning, Shaq, and his latest victims, Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady. These are hilarious sound bytes, and even better when you see them on video. If you do a search on YouTube for "1920's reporter guy", you can see and hear just a few. Just sit back and admire the way he begins each question with "champ.. champ" or "coach.. coach" and watch the confusion begin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Army of Darkness: 31 Films That Give Me The Willies

In the finest spirit of the Halloween season,Ed Hardy Jr. at his blog has posted the official 181 titlesthat make up the final ballot for 'the 31 films that give you the willies'. This is the culmination of over 60 ballots from fellow bloggers, and all the films listed received at least one mention on three ballots. I'll be casting my final vote soon, but in the meantime, as is the usual custom with all Internet balloting, there's no secrecy in the accumulation (I hope). Here is my ballot for the 31 films that truly give me the willies:

31. Silent Hill- Say what you want about this hackneyed crap-fest, director Christophe Gans knows how to build nightmarish tension from sets. Just thinking about that thing wrapped in barb wire in the toilet and the mannequin nurses that swing knives based on sound give me the creeps. Too bad the story didn't live up to the visual vibrancy.
30. Nightmare on Elm Street- Released right at the height of my adolescent years, this was that ONE movie that friends and I would try to sneak peaks at while at each others house, but could never make it through for parental interruption (yes, folks, horror movies were my porn). When I finally did see it, it was just as scary as I'd imagined.
29. Tales From the Crypt- Remember this late 70's movie featuring a hit and run driver ("Thanks for the ride, lady!!!!"), and the story about a woman who makes a wish after her husband's death, and she's forced to live with his terrifying screams because she wished from him alive AFTER being embalmed? That really gives me the willies...
28. Near Dark- Katheryn Bigelow's vampire tale is as stylish as it is scary, but nonetheless, it packs a resonate punch.
27. Hellraiser- Along the same time as "Nightmare on Elm Street", forbidden horror movie for a 13 year old.
26. Legend of Hell House- One of my dad's favorite movies, and a pretty creepy haunted house story.
25. The Eye- One of the first J-Horror films I saw in the theater and the big screen only emphasizes the tension in this film because you can't hide from the flickers at the edge of the screen. Their later efforts have been disappointing, but in this one, the Pang Brothers knew how to elicit fear from things in the background and quick reflections.
24. The Beyond- Lucio Fulci's outrageous and hallucinogenic treat.
23. The Others- Very atmospheric and moody and a great full theater experience.
22. Rosemary's Baby- Probably the master of psychological horror, Polanski's masterpiece is a slow boil, but when the denouement finally hits, it still sends shivers through me today.
21. Slither- The most recent film on this list, James Gunn's film about body snatchers is more fun than scary, but it also revs up the gore to unbearable levels and I won't soon forget some of its grisly images.
20. The Tenant- Another slow-boil from Polanski, and a film that still deserves another viewing from me to fully understand what the hell's goin on, but its undeniably a textured, atmospheric thriller (sensing a trend here?)
19. Audition- Vengeful lovers and acupuncture needles. That's all I need to say....
18. Prince of Darkness- An under appreciated Carpenter flick that I'm very glad to see made the final ballot. One of the more skin-crawling accounts of satanism on celluloid.
17. The Brood- Ohh god those little things in the snowsuits are terrifying enough, but then you've got all the usual Cronenberg undertones to make this film even more unsettling.
16. Shivers- Dare I call it the most blatant AIDS film ever?
15. Nosferatu- Black and white... Max Schreck... was he really a vampire? The back story to Murnau's silent epic is legendary, and the film is equally disconcerting. One of the first (and best) takes on the vampire tale ever.
14. In the Mouth of Madness- Several Carpenter films will make the list, just not the one I'm sure everyone expects. This tale of a writer going through hell rocked me to the core when I first saw it. The scene of a boy on a bike at night time... you have to see it to believe it.
13. The Shining- Ahh those lovely low angle shots of the red headed twins. Is there a more definitive example of giving the willies?
12. The Haunting- The Wise original, this 1963 classic earns its reputation. That final scene, of a face in the attic, literally gave me nightmares for several days afterwards.
11. The Thing- Along the same lines as "Slither", Carpenter's remake is gory, grisly and features some outstanding scares. I wasn't really prepared for this film's greatness when I first watched it a few years back. This is what horror films should be.
10. House of 1,000 Corpses- While director Rob Zombie has made more and more shit since this feature debut, this is one truly disturbed vision.
9. The Evil Dead 2
8- The Evil Dead- One of the rules of Ed's ballot was that one can't list two films together, hence the separation of these two. Though tongue is firmly pressed in cheek throughout Sam Raimi's two efforts, these are also wildly exciting diversions of the horror genre. The sound work is great in both films and that gives me the willies.
7. Pulse- Amazing that Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film ranks so high on this list, but if you've seen it, you can respect that. Kurosawa has mood in spades. While very few of his films are categorically horror, his films often express a deep rooted sense of dread, and none so brilliantly as “Pulse”. What would happen if spirits from another world use the Internet to transfer their presence into our world and slowly bring about the demise of our society? “Pulse” never easily identifies itself, but images of dark rooms as a contorted shadow looms towards us or the solemn quiet that builds throughout certain scenes are highly unnerving. This is one that crawls under your skin, collects in your head and rattles around for days.
6. Don't Look Now- While there are very few outright scares in Roeg’s 1973 psychological thriller, there is that final scene when Donald Sutherland suddenly finds the thing he’s been chasing for the previous 2 hours… and it’s a downright disturbing moment, and some of cinema’s most devastating final images. Before that though, Roeg amps up the psychological tension to an unbearable level, utilizing sound and mirror reflections to chilling lengths. This is one of the true gems of the 1970’s.
5. Dawn of the Dead- Mass consumerism, both human and inhuman, is the real shocker here. While Romero’s sequel is certainly just as socially pointed as the first, Dawn of the Dead spares no limb as a group of survivors fight to stay alive inside a shopping mall. This is fun from start to finish, with more humor and interesting observations than 10 horror films combined. Some don't find 'the willies' in comatose-speed zombies, but I do.
4. Ju-On- Only 5 years ago and the J-Horror movement was beginning to take shape. Now, Hollywood has drained the life out of the genre, substituting teen cleavage for harsh psychological thrills and abrasive editing in place of subtle, jarring movements in the corner of the frame. And while it’s hard not to partially blame Shimizu for this (seeing as how he re-directed 2 of his Asian films for Hollywood with Sarah Michelle Gellar), this 2004 J-Horror film really pushed these films into the limelight. Tremendously creepy and eerie, Ju-On works best in a dark movie theater with the sound cranked up and no where to hide from the images. While the film’s story- ghosts in a big bad haunted house- lacks some spark, the energy of the film lies in the small scares and the suffocating mood that slowly boils as the film rolls along.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- Besides the obvious reasons, Hooper’s masterpiece feels unlike any other horror movie- raw, unfiltered, dirty… all of the things that give this movie a “lived in” feel. Hooper never quite regained his chops after this debut, but the existing result is a terrifying and perverse portrait of madness that fits perfectly into any midnight movie extravaganza. This is the kind of film that forces you to take a shower after watching it.
2. Demons- Carrying on the horror tradition of his father, Mario, this Italian zombie movie (like Romero’s above) constantly exerts a sly gesture of political and cinematic winks, while remaining wholly true to its gore-induced roots. A group of people are trapped inside a movie theater while flesh eating zombies claw away at them. While fellow Italian filmmakers were creating horror films whose splintered narratives made them feel choppy (see any Lucio Fulci film) Bava’s intention was clear- entertain. And in the process, he infused new life into a deflated genre. Extremely bloody and sometimes shocking.
1. Night of the Living Dead- This was one of the first horror movies I remember watching, and more directly, watching through the slits of my fingers as I held them over my eyes. Even today, Romero’s black and white zombie-fest is light years ahead of the social commentary and the gory bleakness of modern horror films. “Night of the Living Dead” is a perfect example of a filmmaker creating the right movie at the right time with an ample understanding of its context in history.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Gray Matters

My appreciation for director James Gray is no secret. While there are those who heave allegations of artistic similarity between Gray and Scorsese, they are worlds apart as far as mood and tone of film is concerned. It's unfair that the term "Scorsese-lite" is used as a denigration against Gray and even more unfair that so many people are rallying against "We Own the Night" as a cheap knock-off of last year's "The Departed", choosing to single out the performance of Mark Whalburg as a stale carbon-copy of that previous effort. The fact is, Gray is no Scorsese and his films are elegant and stately examples of New York 'crime films'. Scorsese is doing his thing and Gray obviously has an affinity (and eye, and ear) for the outer boroughs of New York and the seedy underbelly of Russian gangsters who threaten community and familial harmony. "We Own the Night" is a solid progression in his career and just as moody, atmospheric and brilliantly filmed as his two previous works that mine the same intense territory.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Whalburg (two actors who collided in Gray's 2001 film "The Yards"), "We Own the Night" places them in New York in the late 80's. As brothers, Phoenix runs a profitable night club and cozies up to Russian mobsters while Whalburg is a fast-rising police lieutenant targeting the very clientel that Phoenix caters towards. Caught between both worlds, Phoenix ultimately has to make a choice as to which side his loyalties lie with. In the mix is also Robert Duvall, as the police chief and father to both as well as Phoneix's girlfriend, played with sexiness and understanding by Eva Mendes in a role that could have easily spiraled into mawkish sentiments, but she instead turns it into something honest and believable.

As far as a plot synopsis goes, "We Own the Night" sounds wooden on paper (just as I'm sure his previous two narratives did) but its in the execution that his films come alive. Gray understands the texture that's missing from so many films, the powerful impact that lighting imbues on a production as well as the energy of ambient sound. For example, there are two highly intense set pieces that take ordinary genre settings and elevate them to something more. The first is when Phoenix enters a covert drug manufacturing apartment and the camera slinks along the dimly lit hallways with modulated dread. The quiet is deafening, which makes this scene all the more explosive. The second, a car chase in the pounding rain, virtually eliminating the usual cliches of such a scene, remaining fixed inside the car as Phoenix and Mendes are oblivious to the sounds outside and the soundtrack blurs out all sound except for the muffled sound of the windshield wipers. There are also two or three slow dissolves between scenes that hark back to the days of quiet 70's filmmaking that feel almost revolutionary in their classicism. In fact, that's the perfect word for "We Own the Night", a film that constantly rebukes modern styles for restrained and muted tones and culls the same rhythms from its acting. This is genre filmmaking at its best and it re-affirms my faith that director James Gray is an auteur in every sense of the word.

Friday, October 12, 2007

To Punctuate the Moment

This post is part of the Close Up Blogathon hosted by The House Next Door.

The close-up shot utilized in the visual medium can do three things:

1) they can shock your senses into identifying, on a very personal level, with the character within a given moment.
2) they can project emotions, good or bad, with harrowing accuracy- how can you look away?
3) they can provide relief.

For example:

In between these quick cut images of carnage in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde", there's a quick second reaction shot when Warren Beatty begins to put two and two together and accepts the idea that a host of lawmen are the cause of the bushes rustling in the near distance. The close-up of Beatty is an understated editing choice that makes the death of these outlaws a little more poignant in what it reflects rather than what it says- a man identifying and accepting that fate has finally caught up with him. The close-up is regretful.

Example 2:

In Andrew Dominik's masterful "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford", he alternates between languid long shots of pristine country and intense, somber close-ups that scrutinize so many emotions boiling beneath the surface. In one unflinching scene, the camera holds on Casey Affleck (as Bob Ford) as Jesse James belittles him in front of his family over the dinner table. The shot feels like it goes on forever, intent on framing Affleck's face in the center of the frame as his expression fades from hero-worship to disdain. In that single close-up, motivation and betrayal and character depth are given heavy emphasis. There's more exposition in that one scene than many films strive for during 2 hours. The close-up is confessional.

Example 3:

Comedy. It can be verbal or it can be visual. More often than not, the quick cutaway close-up is of something unmentionable, so its probably better that's its visual. The most recent examples in "Knocked Up" (the "I shouldn't of gone in there..." preceding image) or "There's Something About Mary" (think Franks and Beans....)represent the close-up shot as cathartic laughter. Though often condemned as dirty or crude, these are close-ups that add a dimension to the written word. They don't always work, but when they do, they reach comedy gold. The close-up as relief.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An Appreciation: Abel Ferrara Part 2

Crime and Punishment

It started quickly for Ferrara in 1990. The script entitled "King of New York", written by himself and longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John was given a modest release around the country, largely thanks to the screen presence of Christopher Walken. It began to gather steam with the New York Critics and Film Comment crowd (who are always ready to embrace a new vision of New York) and gradually grew. Not everyone fell in love with Ferrara's effort though- including Roger Ebert who quoted that Ferrara can't go much further on pure style, instead needing a sound script*. But if anything, "King of New York" opened up several viable options for Ferrara. Even if his films weren't for all tastes, there was a genuine cult base to his scruffy compilations of crime and punishment in the big apple. His next movie, "Bad Lieutenant", felt like a major "fuck off" to anyone who dared to go along with its vile outlook on religion, cops and salvation. The film is a litmus test, that's for sure. There are invariably those who walk out on it the minute Ferrara frames Keitel's genitals just outside the screen as he masturbates and makes two teenage girls pantomime sexual gratifications. And then if one makes it that far, they have to endure Keitel drunk and screaming bloody murder at the image of Jesus coming down off the cross. It's not an easy film to love (or for that matter even admire), but I somehow feel like it was meant as a purge for Ferrara. His pessimistic worldview often spews off the screen, whether he's dealing with racism, sexual aggression or personal interaction. In "Bad Lieutenant", Keitel explores all of these as the title character. But he also experiences slight salvation in a final gesture. Yes, there are plenty of images and words to combat against in "Bad Lieutenant", but there's also a deep understanding of subliminal emotions and cathartic release. There is a method to his madness.

And madness is what seemed to propel Ferrara for the next four years, producing a film a year. Even though his work was getting very little commercial recognition (though "Bad Lieutenant" received an Independent Spirit award nomination for best feature as well as Keitel winning for best actor), there were enough responses to his work that studios continued to finance his films. His one attempt at mainstream acclaim happened in 1993 with his remake of Jack Finney's novel, "Body Snatchers". It's probably Ferrara's most ordinary film, both in style and construction. There is some fun to be had by the way Ferrara back lights almost everyone except Gabrielle Anwar, providing featureless shadows that generate a sense of anonymity among the alien-or-not population. It didn't perform well at the box office and received middling reviews, shuffling Ferrara back behind Nicholas St. John scripts and meagerly financed independent pictures. This is probably the smartest thing he could have done.

1994 saw Ferrara churning out two wildy different films. First, there was the black and white vampire flick starring Lili Taylor entitled "The Addiction", which dealt more with the philosophical meanderings of its literate bloodsuckers rather than bloodletting. Stylish and cool, it's a film that feels joined-at-the-hip with other low budget independent features such as Michael Almereyda's "Nadja" and Larry Fesenden's "Habit". It's tempting to say this was the "in" type of film to produce during this time, but its also indicative of a certain state of low-budget filmmaking in the mid 90's. One has to place 1994 within the confines of a heavily mutating style of filmmaking that was beginning to see its virtual end-of-life after just 5 years of Sundance glory and studio manipulation. Neo-noir was played out and filmmakers were searching for new ways to digest old genres in fashionable and ultra-cool manners (see Jarmusch's treatment of the western in "Dead Man" just 1 year later). The vampire film was certainly due for a re-visualization and Ferrara's attraction to characters dealing with pent-up frustration seemed like the perfect substitute for closeted New York vampires. Helped by the murky black and white photography (by long-time DP Ken Kelsch), "The Addiction" is a film that gets better on repeat viewings. Once one gets over the fact that this is not a horror film, but simply another workmanlike exercise for Ferrara to analyze sex, violence, sin and redemption in the big apple, it goes down a lot easier. And this is not a bad thing- to me anyway. Images are often obscured to the point of abstraction and the voice-over (in monotone) lends an eerie mood to the film. It's also one of the more emotionally charged works in Ferrara's oeuvre, dispensing with his usual clinical attitude towards motivation and giving us a character in Lili Taylor who we sympathize with.

This underlying sadness of "The Addiction" is not lost in translation. This was coming from somewhere very specific. Around this same time, writer Nicholas St. John dealt with the death of his young son. This script and the even more emotionally volatile "The Funeral" (filmed two years later) evolved directly from that mournful period of his life**.

The next film in '94 was "Dangerous Game" aka "Snake Eyes" starring, yes, Madonna. Routinely dismissed as a minor or even bad work from Ferrara, I find it to be one of the more elative pieces of his career. Detailing the production shoot of a film-within-the-film, Harvey Keitel plays the director, managing the on-screen disintegration of his actors played by Madonna and James Russo. The insanity on the imaginary film soon spills over into real life as the drugs, booze and territorial sexual transgressions bleeds into real life. "Dangerous Game" is a hall of mirrors, literally, and we're never sure when Ferrara is playing with us. For example, throughout the film-within-the-film, we're given quick glimpses of the clapboard and with the film's title (called "Hall of Mirrors"). Halfway through the film, one clapboard reads with Abel Ferrara's name. Innocent continuity error or something more self-reflexive? With Ferrara, one gets the sense he's not a man who fucks around. I can imagine "Dangerous Game" being the closest we ever come to a documentary about the curt artist. But even if the misogyny seeps through the screen, Madonna and James Russo, as the on-screen married couple hurtling towards certified disaster, they're bold creations in Ferrara' body of work. How often can one say that about Madonna?

It was 1996 before Ferrara returned behind the camera with the aforementioned "The Funeral". Littered with his largest cast yet, its a searing chamber piece about the intertwined lives of 3 brothers in 1930's New York. When their mob lifestyle catches up with them, the morbid humor dries up and "The Funeral" becomes a somber period piece that's articulately acted and carefully photographed. Starring Christopher Walken, Chris Penn and Vincent Gallo as the tightly wound mafioso clan, "The Funeral" continues something he started in "Dangerous Game"- the illumination of some fearless performances by women, this time in the visage of Annabelle Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini as the wives. "The Funeral" erupts into shattering scenes of sadness and despair as the brothers mourn the death of their youngest, and again, its clearly a representation of the despairing situation of the film's writer. The moment that Chris Penn's anger and sadness explode on the screen, its not hard to imagine him acting as a syphon for the flood of emotions locked inside Nicholas St. John. This film, as well as "The Addiction", deserve the light of day on DVD.

Ferrara wasn't working in anonymity during this time. He reached some of the highest peaks of critical acclaim from 1990-1996. Besides the already noted awards of "Bad Lieutenant", Ferrara's mid-90's work was also graced with a Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival (for "The Addiction") and the runner up prize at the Venice Film Festival the next year for "The Funeral". Add to that the growing reputation amongst the New York film critics, and it would seem Ferrara was on a crash course for devising his masterpiece. Instead, he would not see another film released theatrically in the United States and become dependent on foreign finance and relegated to the film festival circuit for the next 10 years.

*Chicago Sun Times, 10-07-1990
**Time Out Guide, '07 ed.

Read Part 1 here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #10

Another round:

1. Nip Tuck Season 4 (HD DVD, 4 discs)- You know, this really is one big male soap opera. Transgenders, lurid sex, preposterous story lines with serial killers- but its all so damn fun and I've been with it since episode 1.
2. House of Voices- I've seen so many horror films, its kinda ridiculous so I have to find my scares in smaller, hidden affairs. This 2004 French film concerns a housekeeper (Virginie Ledoye, remember this beauty from "The Beach"?) who gets involved with a haunted house.
3. Serpico- With Lumet's brilliant "Prince of the City" finally on DVD, I felt the urge to go back and re-watch this Pacino classic. I've said it before, but nobody does New York crime like Lumet. Here's hoping his latest film is half as electrifying as the two above mentioned flicks.
4. Room 666- Wim Wenders film where he sets up a camera in a room and interviews various directors during the Cannes film fest one year.
5. The Fifth Horseman Is Near- Straight from the capsule review on Netflix: After being barred from practicing medicine in Prague, a Jewish doctor takes a job in a Nazi-operated warehouse. But when a political fugitive is critically injured, he risks everything to ease the man's pain. Zbynek Brynych directs this nuanced political allegory that's much more than a historical drama; it's also a finely wrought study of the pitfalls of contemporary communist Czechoslovakia.
6. Battle Royale- Originally saw this about 3 years ago, and its time for another viewing. I remember it being balls-out fun!
7. Vanishing Point- After all the talk about this film when Tarantino's "Death Proof" was released, I figured it was time to see what I was missing.
8. Entrails of a Beautiful Woman- Again, only the capsule can do this any justice: The Japanese Yakuza have stepped up their reign of terror, amping up the brutality of their crimes. After they drug and assault a young woman, she winds up killing herself in front of her doctor (Kazuo Komizo), who decides to seek revenge in her patients name by taking on the mob herself. The punishment she metes out is worse than anything concocted by the criminals, who are rendered helpless by her endless quest for justice. This is one of those left-over Asian cult cinema picks from an earlier list.
9. The Bridge- Controversial documentary released last year about the Golden Gate Bridge. Director Eric Steele placed his camera, motionless, for over a year at the bridge and captured numerous suicide jumps.
10. The Burmese Harp- Criterion finally released two of Kon Ichikawa's greatest films earlier this year and this is part 1 them. I can't wait to pair it with "Fires On the Plain", two searing anti-war dramas.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

That 10 Word Title Movie

Cinematic events always seem to circle each other. Whenever there's a certain genre that makes a re-entrance, they strike in twos. And, more often than not, they're opposite mirror images of themselves. There was the disaster movie trend in the late 90's where "Dante's Peak" went against "Volcano" and "Deep Impact" situated itself against the more frenetic "Armageddon" (ok, so these two examples aren't that opposite!) Then, in 1998 you had the epic World War 2 drama make a splash with modern audiences in the likes of Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line"- two films that take dramatic verges from each other in tone and outlook. And even further back than that, in 1994, the first real push towards re-imagining the western genre was completed by competitive studios when they released "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp". Even though "Tombstone" was the more commercially accepted enterprise, I've always held a fondness for Kevin Costner's more lengthy and detailed portrait of the gunslinger as ensemble epic. Now, in 2007, the western has again made a concerted effort to reclaim its position in cinema as a viable commodity on-screen. While "3:10 To Yuma" is the grittier, more socially-conscious effort, I've just witnessed its evil doppelganger in the form of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford". At just under 3 hours, Dominik's film is an uncompromising and lyrical addition to the western genre that feels soul-cleansing in the way he allows images to linger and mood to drown out the ordinary tempo of filmmaking. This is a stunning work.

Dominik wisely lets the cat out of the bag in his 10 word title. There's no mystery here as to how this tale will end. By knowing that Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) will shoot Jesse James (Brad Pitt) in the back on a date given in the film's first 5 minutes, Dominik has exorcised the means of fashioning a whodunit. Instead, we're allowed to translate the various conversations, underlying motives and nervous energy with a jaundiced eye. Casey Affleck, as Bob Ford, is nothing short of a revelation in this performance. Just watch how (in one pivotal dinner scene) the camera holds on his facial gestures in an uncomfortably long single take as Jesse James talks. You could write that, but its perfection in how Affleck translates that on-screen. "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is also part psychological horror. Since the film begins at the last robbery committed by the gang, the remainder of the film's 2 hour and 30 minute running time concerns the fissures that grow in the increasingly paranoid mind of Jesse James. He begins to visit each of his old gang in their various hideouts, assessing whether they'll give him up or not. Likewise, crime is put on the back burner by his gang as they roll through ordinary events post-robbery. There's the way Dick Liddle (played incredibly by Paul Schneider) continues with his sexual exploits. There's Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), older brother to Bob who plays the middle ground whenever he's caught between the charismatic presence of Jesse and his young brother. And there's the violence that erupts between Liddle and Wood Height (Jeremy Renner) over a girl. These events may feel like unnecessary languors, padding in a film that could have been wrapped up in 105 minutes, but Dominik is after something else here. This is a deep character study of two opposing forces mounted against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop of land and snow and trees. Something of that magnitude takes time, and Dominik allows the characters to breath.

Even after the famous event in the title has happened, Dominik's film carries on a little longer to play out the (mis) fortunes of Bob Ford. And it's here that Bob Ford's true character arch presents itself. Even though the title bears both men's names, this is really Ford's story. And after the film's many gunshots (which literally often come out of nowhere and made me jump in my seat several times) the way Dominik frames and edits the film's conclusion feels like a magnificent attempt to fittingly apply the novelistic nature of his tale. "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

News and Noteworthy

Sounds like my all time favorite band,Radiohead, are trying something experimental. We'll see how this works out.

Secondly, news has been trickling out since yesterday morning about more local corruption in Dallas. Sixteen people now have been indicted, a mixture of current and former City Hall employees, construction companies and land developers. Details are complex, but it involves bribery, real estate fraud and illegal kickbacks. This comes just 12 months after a pretty widespread investigation of numerous Dallas police officers and officials who were found to be tampering with evidence and accepting pay-offs. Sounds like New Jersey huh? Maybe Sidney Lumet could make one helluva film here.

Lastly, Ed Hardy over at Shoot the Projectionist is hosting an October list-a-thon in which he's inviting everyone to submit their list of their 31 favorite scary movies. From that, we've had much discourse from Neil at his Bleeding Tree blog as well as Piper at his place concerning what definitions of horror really 'give them the willies'. I don't know if I can go into that much theorizing about matters, but I certainly appreciate mood and atmosphere over blood, gore and jumps. Which is probably why films like "Don't Look Now", "The Others", Kiyoshi Kurosawa's original "Pulse", "The Shining" and "Rosemary's Baby" will win out anyday over more touted horror fare. The best horror movies get inside your head and roll around for days, causing you to see things out of the corner of your eye or have nightmares a week later. That's what atmosphere and mood do for me, and that's my kinda willies.