Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie Endings

This post is a contribution to the Endings-Blogathon hosted at Valley Dreamin'.

What makes a great ending? I don't know if I can put it into words. Or if anyone can. We just know when an ending is perfect. Whether it leaves us with a gasp or a smile or a devastated feeling of being punched in the gut, films can achieve a cathartic transformation when they end on just that right note. My favorite ending and a very worthy entry into this blogathon has to be the final scene in Nick Gomez's 1992 indie drama "Laws of Gravity"... which I wrote about here earlier this year. Little seen and even more under represented on any home video form, the film is a cinema verite observation of four New York hoods, scratching and clawing their way for survival through petty shoplifting, incessant shit-talking and dealing firearms. It may sound especially hard to gain empathy for these lackluster burn outs, but actors Peter Greene and Adam Trese form a unique brotherly bond that echoes quietly throughout the film. As Jimmy, Peter Greene is constantly trying to simmer the short fuse that often explodes within Tommy (Trese). **Spoiler.. if you care, read no further** After 90 minutes of protective shelter, Jimmy turns his back for one second and the inevitable happens. But the power of this film's final scene is not in the death of Tommy, lying bleeding on the sidewalk in front of a bar, but the helpless way in which Greene hovers over the lifeless body, screaming for people to get back and give him some air, and constantly yelling out for "Sal!" "Sal!".. as the neighborhood father figure who never comes to help. Then, the sharp fade to black as the voice of Jimmy lingers over the fade out for a good minute, desperately pleading for people to "get the fuck back! Go home! Go home! Sal!" In the crowd of 90's indie cinema that charts some of the same territory, the desperation is the same. But in "Laws of Gravity", director Gomez makes you feel the loss of one life wasting away on the hot New York sidewalk like no one else.

One example of the languid brilliance of "Laws of Gravity". Admire the long take:

And a few honorable mentions:

Peter Weir's "Fearless" from 1993. This ending gives me chills everytime. Rent it today!

Abel Ferrera's "King of New York":

Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia"
Roman Polanski's Chinatown

Stanley Kubrick's "Dr Strangelove":

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A David Fincher Tear Jearker?

Would it be wrong to declare that I sorely miss the clinical David Fincher over this new... softie? Immediately after returning home from the maudlin-fest that is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", I popped in last year's "Zodiac" and cleansed the palette. Now that's a film that gets better with each new viewing... a film that offers up a new interpretation through its detached gaze of obsession of procedure... a film that heightens the intellect through small, meticulous ways such as the speech given by Downey Jr. towards the end... and especially a film that expertly marries Fincher's formal technique on a collision course with the saturated and beautifully dark HD images of night time California. I honestly doubt I'll ever have the inclination to watch "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button " again. Some have stated that it might be a film that gets better with age- i.e. meaning that us young 'uns must not be able to appreciate love and loss on the same profound scale as our elders!?- but for me, its message did hit home, moved me subtlety at times, but ultimately wore out its welcome after the 2 hour mark when the path of star-crossed lovers Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shared yet another dreamy moment designed to stimulate the tear ducts. For anyone who wishes to see games of coincidence and chance played out between star-crossed lovers done without the turgid (and obvious) backdrop of history paraded in front, check out the works of Julio Medem who does this type of thing flawlessly, on a smaller budget, and with considerable less green screen.

But part of the blame has to lie squarely on the shoulders of writer Eric Roth. The thought of this being "Forrest Gump" part two is inescapable. The parallels are too eerie to swat away. The same type of colorful, cartoonish characters pop up along the journey, the most annoying being Jared Harris as the good hearted captain of a tugboat whose spirit seems to morph, posthumously, into a hummingbird and flies away. I'm not kidding. It's exactly this type of fairy-tale metaphor that ultimately overtakes "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and evolves into that type of film ... the dreaded overbearing Oscar-bait epic type. In certain instances, flights of whimsy like this can lift a film into the upper echelon ("Breaking the Waves" anyone?). In "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" this diluted any good natured harmony I'd built up for the film. Things turned cloying, dis ingenious, and ultimately I just wanted the misery to end. I want the Eric Roth of "The Insider" and "Munich" back.

The film isn't a total loss even though my previous two hundred words makes it seem that way. The film does look incredible, holds a moving score by Alexander Desplat and Cate Blanchett, by god, manages to look even hotter than ever before. How does she do that? Fincher holds restraint over most of the images, relying on a firmly planted camera to slowly pan and descend the green/brown interiors, and there are two or three scenes where a bright light is planted directly behind the face of the main character that casts an ominous silhouette over the person. I found myself much more involved in the way a scene was lit or the details in the background then the platitudes of loneliness and loss that was developing within the film. This is never a good thing. Like the speculative final moments of "Zodiac" which forces the viewer to assess everything that's come before and make an educated guess, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" leaves nothing to the imagination, except why Roth and Fincher chose to frame this ages-long love story against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. I suppose its par for the course when one is piling misery upon misery.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Doubt

Bringing a play to the big screen is always a tenuous task. In some cases, the restrictive nature of the stage hinders its celluloid interpretation, which forces the filmmaker to 'open up' the play, which seems to further dilute the power of the written word in the first place. I'm not thinking of any play-to-film specifically. But when it does work exceptionally well- i.e. pretty much any Mamet but especially "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" or most of Neil Simon- very little can compare to the kinetic energy thrown off by the ensemble cast. That's pretty much the case with John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt". From the opening scene where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is delivering a sermon about doubt and moral uncertainty (what else), this film sank its hooks in me. More than a review, I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts about this film.

1. Even though I didn't grow up in the specific milieu of "Doubt" (mid 1960's New York), I am a Catholic and did serve as an alter boy, so the familiarity of tradition, ritual and respect hit home immediately.
2. Granted, this is an actor's movie. Sit back and enjoy the sparks that fly between Meryl Streep and Hoffman as opposing sides of a belief. But more than that, I read Shanley's attempt as a direct confrontation between progressive religious ideals and the more traditional, stoic outlook on Catholicism. This is highlighted in quite entertaining flourishes as we successively witness the male priests drinking, smoking and telling jokes, and then cut to the solemn and quiet meal between the nuns- complete with milk and neatly divided foods on their plates.
3. The common complaint with "Doubt" is Shanley's obvious moral uncertainty about which side he falls on. Did Father Flynn really commit the actions Sister Aloyious (Streep) firmly believes he did? Or is it something completely fabricated since she opposes his modern flair for niceties? I couldn't care less what Shanley believes. Part of the intensity in watching "Doubt" is how subtly certain points are drawn. I have a pretty good idea what I think took place, but that interpretation could be diametrically opposed to what the person sitting next to me felt. As a conversation starter, "Doubt" situates itself precariously in the middle and one idea from one person could tip it one way or the other. There's certainly nothing wrong with a cinematic experience opening up numerous channels of dialogue. We need more of that today.
4. Viola Davis' one scene with Meryl Streep as the mother of the boy believed to be involved in the film's central conundrum, is definitely everything you've read about. She will receive an Oscar nomination, but don't let the powerhouse acting obfuscate the meaning of her scene. So much is said in very little and shaded ways. I found myself so wrapped up in her performance as an emotionally distraught mother that I may have missed the real explanation.
5. Damn Amy Adams is adorable. But then "The Office" should have taught me that.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Recently Seen

Cadillac Records

I admit to a strong bias on this one. My first job as a young teenager was working in a record/baseball card shop where I got paid in product. Yes, $45 a week in something can very quickly bulk up a sturdy collection of anything. And this is where I built up a 200+ record collection of blues masters (both black and white). This is where I first heard early Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds), Rolling Stones, Alexis Korner, The Animals.... and then I discovered the guys behind these guys. Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf- a lifelong fascination was firmly rooted.And yes, I still treasure my record collection today, featuring some original issues of these masters as I grew older and had actual money to invest. Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records" is a competent spin through the boisterous years of my favorite blues greats as Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) built up a stable of blues musicians and, in turn, spawned a whole new generation of musical talent. The film, focusing on the family-like atmosphere that develops (and then degrades) between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and harmonica pioneer Little Walter (Columbus Short), is big on heart. Satellite relationships, such as the introduction of Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chuck Berry (a lively Mos Def) and Howlin Wolf (Eamonn Walker) helps paint "Cadillac Records" as yet another music biopic that often succeeds more than it falters. Certain aspects are a little glib and certainly manipulated for maximum Hollywood effect, but the central performances of Wright and Knowles are (pardon the pun) electric. As Etta James, Knowles lights up the screen and when she belts out classics such as "At Last", I found my emotions soaring. She makes you feel the zing of passionate music being spewed out with equal fiery and painful remembrance. Writer and director Darnell Martin doesn't do anything flashy. He allows the performances to carry the film. And in this regard, "Cadillac Records" is head and shoulders better than the lazy paint by numbers "Ray", yet it'll probably be overlooked both commercially and critically.

Milk not spoiler-free!

Shades of the morose drape Gus Van Sant's "Milk" from the very beginning, but it's to the credit of Van Sant, writer Dustin Lance Black and lead actor Sean Penn that the film rises above its inevitable sad conclusion by instilling such vibrant humanity in every character. Penn shines in the lead role as gay activist turned politician Harvey Milk (naturally) but it's the supporting cast that forms the real joyous core of "Milk". James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna and Josh Brolin provide miraculous supporting performances as members in (varying) aspects of the moral rainbow kick started by the right time and place- namely San Francisco in the late 70's when police beatings and routine discrimination against its growing homosexual population became the unofficial policy. Like any good bio-pic, "Milk" hits the right notes and duly checks off the high tide events, but the film managed to win me over regardless of its somewhat rudimentary framework. Again, the performances are so good it draws you in immediately. And when the inevitable does happen, Van Sant punctuates the moment in haunting and heartbreaking ways. Like he did with "Last Days" and especially "Elephant", the tracking shot becomes a fore bearer of evil. The minute the camera slowly tracks behind Supervisor Dan White (Brolin) down the halls of San Francisco's city building, you can taste violence in the air. A very good film.

A few minor blurbs about some others:

Step Brothers- I don't know why I continue to bother with these improvised Will Ferrell comedies. The best thing about this one is seeing Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins go crazy and say things like "what the fucking fuck?"

Blood of My Blood-Remember when the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance actually meant something for the recipient? At the very least, it meant respectable art house buzz and a generous push to a limited audience (thinking "Slam", "Three Seasons", "Welcome To the Dollhouse" or "You Can Count On Me"). With Christopher Zalla's "Blood of My Blood", it gets an unceremonious dump in early 2008, a full year after winning the prestigious Sundance acclaim. It's a decent little movie, following the divergent paths of two Mexican immigrants as they scrap and claw for a livelihood in the brutal concrete jungle of New York. While I personally wouldn't have garnered it with any awards, it's unusual to see the Sundance pedigree waning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Trailers I Love

I haven't been a huge fan of Sam Mendes. While his films always seem to deal with 'heavy themes' that feel like an over-sized reach towards Oscar validation, his efforts do look technically classy. However, I still curl away at the pretentious, brow beating moments in his Hollywood calling card, "American Beauty" (it's only a floating paper bag, people, get over it!). There were some genuine and startingly great moments in "Road To Perdition" and "Jarhead", but both left me pretty empty. Yet, through all my ineffectual feelings towards his previous films, something looks and feels right about his latest trip through suburban malaise in "Revolutionary Road". Whether it's the way the crooning music perfectly elicits the era or the possibility of seeing Kate and Leo really tear up the screen, I don't know... but I do know I'll be there front and center for this one.

And, to add a little more anticipation to "Revolutionary Road's" 50's nostalghia, take a gander at this photo in luminous black and white.

Posted on the website First Showing Net, there are a few others one can check out. There's something intimately relaxed and intriguing about the placement of Kate and Leo during some downtime. It could have been staged for rubes like me to think it's genuine, but its hard to deny the grace of the photograph.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Love Bites: Let the Right One In

As someone who appreciated the graphic novel roots of "30 Days of Night" from last year, I'm doubly impressed by the subtle brilliance of Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In". While David Slade's vampire interpretation was full of fast and brutal limb-tearing ferocity, Alfredson works at the other end of the spectrum, giving the genre a refreshing spin. Alfredson- clearly a talent to watch- infuses such simple honesty into each and every frame of his unique vision that, by the time the film's magical final image rolls around, I didn't want it to stop. Alas, that's the beauty of crafting such a well balanced film.

Descriptions of "Let the Right One In" could encompass so many genres- horror film, suburban teen angst (albeit in a very cold, nontraditional setting), awkward adolescent love story, coming-of-age melodrama... everything fits and evokes a specific reaction. So many ideas and emotions are crammed into the film that choosing any one of these would be sufficient. Twelve year old Oskar (Kara Hedebrandt) is alienated, bullied relentlessly at school and spends his free time along at night stabbing trees with his knife as vengeful thoughts rattle around in his head. In the cramped, non descript apartment housing where he lives, a new neighbor moves in overnight. Soon, Oskar meets Eli (Lina Leannderson). With long black hair that covers her pale white face, carrying an odd odor and seemingly ambivalent towards the mounds of snow that pile up around her as she wanders around barefoot, the two form a relationship that teeters on the brink of first love. But, it's not long after that we (and eventually Oskar) realize that Eli is hiding a dark secret. This brief description makes "Let the Right One In" sound ordinary, I know. What director Alfredson does with this mundane idea, though, is a wonder to behold. Through carefully modulated performances by both young actors and expertly framed compositions that draw out an impending sense of violence, "Let the Right One In" is a masterpiece of economical filmmaking. Tension and effect are choreographed in precise camera placement, such as the above shot for one scene in a bathroom which tells us everything and nothing. Still, the real hook of "Let the Right One In" resides in the central relationship between Oskar and Eli. Take out some of the bloodshed, and you've got the framework for a perfectly realized modern day Grimm fairy tale. Instead, we get a genuine adult treat that ranks as one of the year's most fantastic experiences.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #21

I apologize for light posting this week. It's been a busy one. I've got some reviews I've been meaning to bang out (especially one on "Let the Right One In"), so hopefully next week provides the opportunity. In the meantime, next 10 titles in my queue:

1. Expect the Unexpected- Late 90's Patrick Yau film about a group of Hong Kong thieves whose bank robbery goes "horribly awry". I remember quite a bit of art house buzz about this.
2. The Free Will- German film released earlier this year about a rapist released back onto the streets. The subject matter sounds harsh, and everything I've read about this paints it as a rather unpleasant viewing experience. Time to see for myself.
3. Bang the Drum Slowly- Yes, the DeNiro I'm-dying-male-baseball-weepie from the 70's Never seen it.
4. The Boost- 80's film starring James Woods as a drug addict. Directed by the workmanlike Harold Becker whose made his share of watchable adult dramas.
5. Ace In the Hole- Classic Kirk Douglas film about a journalist fanning the flames of a mining accident in New Mexico. Directed by Billy Wilder. I know I've seen this film on TCM years ago, but its due for a re-visit.
6. Bashing- Masahuro Kobayashi's 2005 film about: "a woman released after being kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq, Japanese aid worker Yuko (Fusako Urabe) faces a hostile reception back home in this drama based on true events. Feeling that she's shamed the country, strangers consider her a pariah. Even her family members, friends and former co-workers show no sympathy, greeting her with awkwardness or jeers. The film received a nomination for the Palme d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival."
7. The Power of Nightmares- (3 discs) British documentarian Adam Curtis's highly acclaimed '06 series about the relationship between fear in the media and politics. I had no idea this thing was out there on DVD. As respected as it was by so many people, one would have thought lefties would be clamoring to the hills about it.
8. A Boy and His Dog- The great L.Q. Jones directs this cult classic about the apocalypse.
9. Classe Tour Resquis- Claude Santet's 60's crime drama about two hoods bonding on the lam. I'm a sucker for most any French crime film.
10. Knightriders- Another one that seems to have been slipped onto DVD without much fanfare. This is the early 80's George Romero flick about a group of touring Renaissance fair jousters? Yes, it is true. Sounds like campy fun.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Top 5 List: The Death Game Genre

I suppose one could make top 5 lists of the best rock documentaries (with the release of "Cadillac Records" this week) or the top 5 Mickey Rourke performances, but how much fun would that be? And apologies to any fellow bloggers who actually have made any lists like that. I wanted to go in a different direction. After recently watching Robert Altman's much maligned (but not altogether bad) 70's sci-fi film "Quintet", the idea hit me. How many good- or at least highly enjoyable guilty pleasures- are out there that feature this style of medieval hunter and prey narrative? Or as I affectionately call them, the death game genre. So, since my previous Top 5 list counted down the best Nazi hunter films, here's another offbeat list of films for you. Feel free to add any I missed. After number one, in no preferential order:

1. Battle Royale- Kinji Fukasaku's modern cult classic gets better every time I watch it. From the exaggerated kill scenes to the menacing sexuality of Chiaki Kuriyama, (who Tarantino requisitioned for his own romp through Asian theatrics in "Kill Bill"), "Battle Royale" is best seen with a crowd, preferably after midnight and with a few beers. In Japan, society is rapidly becoming overcrowded, so the government's idea is to randomly choose one class of school children, deport them to a secluded island booby trapped with all types of grotesque land mines, and have them pick each other off one by one with various weapons handed out in nap sack. Ridiculous, yes, but wildly entertaining in the right frame of mind. "Battle Royale" came much later in the death game genre, but it's pretty much become the definitive example.

2. Tag: The Assassination Game- If you've seen this film, then I think there's an unwritten law that you have to like it. I watched this compulsively as a kid in the eighties, and it's long overdue for a re-watch now. A small group of kids on a college campus form a game where they use fake guns with darts to hunt and assassinate each other. The only problem is, one of the group takes his losing way too seriously and begins playing the game with a real gun. Not only did this film single handily kick start me and my friends' love for dart guns and sneaking around our dark houses during the summer, but it remains one of those unheralded gems from the 80's that is ripe for discovery. Why isn't this thing programmed for cult film festivals? I could see Harry Knowles championing this thing.

3. The Running Man- Another great 80's cult favorite with every one's favorite governor portraying a convict running for his life in an elaborately staged game show hosted by Richard Dawson in the year 2019! Too good to believe, I know. For those totally clueless about this, "The Running Man" was Tri Star's attempt to cash in on everything from WWF (since Jesse The Body Ventura has a role) to "American Gladiators"... yes the original show with bad ass guns that shoot tennis balls at 80 MPH. As a twelve year old kid, this thing rocked. I caught up with it a few years ago and, amazingly, it still holds up. Great one-liners from Arnold, a smoking hot Maria Conchita Alonso and some pretty great production designs.

4. Series 7: The Contenders-The weakest of this bunch, but still a solid and intriguing modern spin on the death game genre. Directed by Daniel Minahan, the film jumped on the early 00's bandwagon of the mockumentary and re-created his love for films like "Tag the Assassination Game" as a film crew follows 6 people chosen to take part in a contest of last man standing. Really more of a jagged, sardonic riff on the explosion of modern reality television, the film's bite comes in the character of Dawn (Brooke Smith, the girl held captive in the well in "Silence of the Lambs"), a pregnant contestant who goes all out. As far as dark comedies go, you can't ask for anything better than this, even if the characterizations are a bit lazy and the film runs out of steam well before its over.

5. Quintet- As mentioned above, "Quintet" isn't the debacle that many have claimed. The sets are cheesy, yes, but Newman is effective as a man struggling to understand the futuristic game he stumbles across in an ice-covered city full of ravaging dogs and homeless wanderers. Not quite a dystopian vision of the future, but a compelling one nonetheless. And, honestly is this film the genesis for the genre? For the life of me I can't think of any films before this late 70's film that deals with this subject matter. That alone should secure "Quintet" a firm place on any such list.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Future's So Bright...

A few things I've run up against in the last couple weeks that I can't wait to see or experience:

1. Naturally, this new little thing from Darren Aronofsky and someone named Mikey err Mickey Rourke?

2. While watching the very lackluster "24 Redemption", FOX broadcast a quick teaser to this new show debuting on A&E early next year. Patrick Swayze... mumbling a voice over about someone drowning, then picking up a gun and holster from the table? In the words of Peter Griffin from "Family Guy" when he finds an old pair of long johns with a butthole flap in the back for sale at a clothing store- "here's a check with my name on it.... fill in any amount you wish." I'm so there for whatever this show is.

3. From Slashfilm, someone named Christopher shared production photos of Michael Mann's '09 summer release, "Public Enemies", which looks at 30's era gangsters and stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

Some very early test screening reviews can also be found here if that's your thing. I personally avoid them since one runs the risk of rolling over spoilerific items. And honestly, how often can you trust these things?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

DVD Shout Out: Jar City

I can count the number of glacial-set police thrillers on one hand. There's Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Norwegian "Insomnia" and that film's own American remake starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams which relocates its main setting to Nightmute, Alaska... and is a pretty under appreciated Christopher Nolan project. Both films pit a slowly unraveling police investigator against his own conscience and daylight itself, respectively. If I'm leaving off any well crafted films from this sub-genre, please let me know.

Now along comes Baltasar Kormakur's "Jar City", a film that revels in the same exotic setting and spares no police procedural details. When a body of a man is found murdered, Inspector Erlunder (Ingvar Sigurossen) and his colleagues mobilize to find the killer. What they dig up (besides the eyes of Iceland's apparent favorite food dish, sheep's head) is a long tract of police corruption, dark family secrets and seething hatred. In essence, "Jar City" is not far removed from the Hollywood film noirs- or at least the ones that attempt to pin down the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles such as "L.A. Confidential" or "The Black Dahlia"- which is not a good film yet it acutely embellishes James Ellroy's sickening and corrupted slant on the city of angels. With every step of "Jar City", the screws are tightened and we begin to not want the film to go any further. And when it does reach its climax, the non-linear story lines gel in a brutally resonant way.

Mirror ideas abound. While searching for the killer, Erlunder is dealing with the drug addiction of his own daughter. Another character loses his young daughter in the opening of the film. While the murder and violent themes- including a missing brain and a really, really scary, large, bald headed escape con- are presented in straight forward images, the beautiful landscape setting around Iceland's capital, Reykjavic, is sublime and starkly contrasts everything else. "Jar City" almost supposes the idea that violence never happens here, but when it does, its repercussions are felt throughout the country. Likewise, its seemingly random (and singular) murder surfaces generations of hatred, guilt and genetic disease. It's a very interesting idea, executed with style and depth. Check this one out.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Great Soundtracks

Fans of 80's indie pop should rush out to pick up Devotchka's latest album, "A Mad and Faithful Telling". Blending soulful lyrics, horns, Philip Glass-like bass lines and pretty much everything else from mariachi horns to polka, it's a magical sound. Devotchka are poised to break into the mainstream, if that really already hasn't happened. Their music was the backdrop for the 2006 indie smash comedy "Little Miss Sunshine". While I thought the film was ok enough, its soundtrack, from the opening song "How It Goes" to its foot tapping rendition of "Till the End of Time", they created a sound that was altogether unique. If nothing else, see the film for that- even though the "indie that could" has unfairly become a snide retort on the feel good type of film that irks the more hard-hearted film lover. Remember "it's this year's Little Miss Sunshine!" when referring to last year's "Juno", and a phrase which seems to be opening up as the rallying cry for this year's chosen sacrificial lamb, "Slumdog Millionaire". While my sentiments were kinder towards "Little miss Sunshine" than "Juno", I never understood the need for someone to use snide slander towards someone else for liking a film (unless that film happens to be "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"!). It's all subjective. People take away different things from a film based on their pre-conceived notions, past experience and demeanor when they walk into a movie theater. Part of the reason why I stay away from the talk forums of say, Ain't It Cool News, is the ugly and vindictive way in which film lovers decide to discuss film. But, in the kingdom of ADD-affected readers, the blurb is king. Anyway, I've gotten off tangent here. Enjoy the music of Devotchka.

Updated- Just read that "Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture and Director at the British Academy Awards tonight. Expect mucho backlash against this wonderful film immediately.

Bonus clip: Devotchka's "Till the End of Time" with clips from "Little Miss Sunshine".

Friday, November 28, 2008

70's Bonanza- Save the Tiger

There's something ultra cool in the way films from the 70's seemed to pervasively nail the breakdown of the American middle class. Whether it was the effects of Vietnam, political scandals like Watergate or the oil embargo, 70's cinema seemed especially angry and the new Brat filmmakers exploited those outward emotions to devastating lengths. In "Save the Tiger", Jack Lemmon is yet another cog in the upper middle class wheel, suffering through the worst day and a half of his life. He owns a textile marketing factory in the heart of Los Angeles. From the opening, a 15 minute bedroom conversation between Harry Stoner (Lemmon) and his wife (Patricia Smith), its evident the malaise is deeply rooted. Harry awakes with a scream, sweating and obviously glad to be out of his nightmare. He rumbles around the room, gets dressed, laments the fact that he should've been a pitcher, and dutifully goes to work. He meets his partner and best friend, Phil (Jack Gilford) at the office where they pick up a conversation that must've ended hours ago. Harry wants to get in touch with someone named 'Charlie' so he can pay the man to torch a second factory he owns to get out of an impending IRS audit since he and Phil have cooked the books. Phil is morally against this decision, yet he still tags along with Harry to meet the arsonist at a porn theater. And that's all before lunch. "Save the Tiger" grinds the viewer down as it doggedly tails Harry through the day as he juggles his business and his own personal breakdown. Besides the little matter of a felony such as arson, Harry speaks at a fashion luncheon for his line of clothes and becomes increasingly disoriented. He begins to imagine the audience are dead soldiers he fought with in an unmentioned war (probably Korea). One of the film's best scenes, it slowly inter cuts the baffled, confused snobby fashion audience with frighteningly haunting white faces covered in blood and bruises. For the sheer entertainment value of watching Lemmon squirm, you can do no better than this scene and his performance in "Glengarry Glen Ross". And to even further complicate his maddening day, Harry is responsible for setting up a prostitute with a high-end client which ends in an emergency call to the hotel room when the client suffers a heart attack. I couldn't help but imagine P.T. Anderson had to be thinking of this scene when he threw in his own prostitute/hotel/death scene in his debut film "Hard Eight". Both feature an extended long take which shrouds the scene in mystery. The only bright spot for Harry's day falls on the shoulders of a hitchhiking hippie named Myra (Laurie Heineman in a touching and sweet performance) who exposes him to pot and free love. Whether this is a good thing for a guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown is another matter.

The success of "Save the Tiger" (whose title does represent something brought up along the narrative) lies within Lemmon's performance, and he throttles the tumultuous emotions bubbling inside Harry with brutal perfection. Directed by John Avildsen, the workmanlike crafter of later feel-good hits such as "Rocky" and the "Karate Kid" movies (!), has caught my eye with two hard edged films about upper middle class men crashing into the glass wall of America's dirty underbelly. His second film in 1970, "Joe", starred Peter Boyle as a racist, hippie-hating blue collar man who befriends and pushes rich family man Bill (Dennis Patrick) to violent extremes when his drug addicted daughter gets lost in the Greenwich Village underground scene. Both "Joe" and "Save the Tiger" feature a later generation family man rubbing shoulders with the counter culture, albeit with drastically different outlooks. While there's optimism for Harry Stoner, who leaves his hippie girl one nighter with a smile on his face after she insists he has "a good day", the counter-culture is openly detested and used as vigilante prey in "Joe". Taking both films as a whole, Avildsen was clearly searching for the obtrusive impact of one generation on another. "Save the Tiger" is no less savage against the older generation, but at least it goes a little easier on the counter culture.

"Save the Tiger" is available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Double Feature

Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" wears its thumping, bustling heart on its sleeve. Fashioned out of the melodramatic stuff that usually floats the overtly sentimental narratives of a Lifetime Channel movie, this is a movie that shouldn't succeed. Yet, by the end, I was fully enraptured by its energy, heart and abundant chemistry. Told in flashback as to how young Jamal (Dev Patel) rose from the trash-littered slums of India and ended up one question away from winning millions of dollars on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, "Slumdog Millionaire" carries over Boyle's eclectic filmmaking sensibility and thrashes that pulsating style against a story with genuine emotional oomph. Savage in just the right places (when depicting the violent and poverty stricken underbelly of India) and heartbreaking in others, this film reminded me of the cathartic tug of war that Spanish director Julio Medem often employs in his films about soul mates treading place and time. Still, the less you know about "Slumdog Millionaire" before going in, the better off you'll be when it reaches its ebullient home stretch. I loved this movie. And it features the best closing credit sequence of the year.

A Christmas Tale

The new king of the 3 hour French talkie (after "Kings and Queens" and "My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument"), Arnaud Desplechin's latest film, "A Christmas Tale" isn't exactly the warm and fuzzy holiday treat the title alludes to. The setting is that holly-jolly time of year, but the film is more interested in the volatile feelings that rise up when one large family gets together for that holiday. Messy, convoluted and seemingly shot like a teenager just discovering the tricks of the trade such as nouvelle vague jump cuts, iris wipes and split-screen, "A Christmas Tale" covers more ground in its first ten minutes than most films in their entire running time, playfully charting the lineage and tragic medical history of the Vuillard family. As mother, Catherine Denevue is stoic. Her three children, prone to in-fighting which leads to the banishment of younger brother (Mathieu Amalric) by his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigney) over some muddled financial swindle, finally emerge under the same roof for Christmas with the news that mom is dying of a rare blood disease. Also thrown into the mix is another brother named Ivan, (Melvil Poupard), a suicidal nephew (Emile Berling) and a cousin (Laurent Capalutto) who has never gotten over his lost love, now married to Ivan. Desplechin cooks up a huge helping of bourgeois malaise as these characters interact, fight, laugh and rekindle old flames. But, as with all of Desplechin's films, even though the plot threatens to overrun the connectivity to his audience, he handles the whole affair with a deft touch, striking sense of humor and a bracing affection for his whirlwind cast. "A Christmas Tale" is certainly a film to admire, if for nothing more than observing the light and idiosyncratic touch that Desplechin applies to well-worn archetypes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dating Tips

With Texas Tech being served their first loss last night, I'm sure things are of major downer proportions in Lubbock. But no fear.... head coach Mike Leach has some dating tips. Be sure to listen to the last 10 seconds. Classic.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On John Adams

In a year of terrific performances from around the globe, the absolute best may very well be on the small screen. As John Adams- lawyer, proponent of freedom, oral instigator, pioneering political head and the eventual second President of the United States- Paul Giamatti immediately wraps your interest around his dynamic performance. No less galvanizing, though, is Laura Linney as Abigail- wife, mother, confidant and backbone. Together, they make Tom Hooper's 7 part HBO mini-series a treasure to behold. Saying this series had me from the first episode is a bit misleading. Being a historical nut, I'd read parts of the David McCullough biography the series is based on, but visualizing it and placing modern actors inside the convoluted life of Adams is another thing. Yet, from the opening moments and ensuing grand courtroom speech, "John Adams" is a stirring achievement. Watching the fire in Giamatti's eyes as he delivers certain speeches or the compassionate reaction shots of Linney- this is really a love letter to their long marriage... a marriage interrupted by war and duty, but a marriage nonetheless.

Don't expect a large scale epic that concerns itself with bloody battles of the Revolution, though. In fact, during the actual fighting, John Adams was an ambassador in foreign lands, scurrying around trying to understand the gaudy customs and mannerisms of France or swerving through sickness in gloomy Denmark. "John Adams" is, instead, a low-key character driven reflection of this great man's tireless pursuit for American Independence. While ancillary characters such as George Washington (David Morse), Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) are given brief interludes, the focus of this series is squarely on Adams and his relationship to Abigail first and foremost and then his best friend/enemy Thomas Jefferson (a wonderful Stephen Dillane). And the fact that "John Adams" can maintain such a fierce intensity with words rather than bullets is a direct compliment to the production values and Emmy award winning performances that drive the central themes.

While some may look at the dry nature of the series and ignore it (9 hours about a president? no thanks!), I'm not sure what more I can say. Either this type of thing is your bag or it's not. Regardless, if one gives it a chance, I guarantee the series' intricate plotting, warm acting and emotionally involving storyline (especially the final episode that evoked a small lump in even my throat) is more interesting than 75% of the 2 hour movies released so far this year. "John Adams" is yet another towering example of the illuminating creativity being generated on the small screen.

Monday, November 17, 2008

4 From the Cine

Rachel Getting Married

After wandering around in the documentary wilderness with diverse exposes such as "The Agronomist" and "Jimmy Carter- Man From the Plains" (both very good by the way), Jonathan Demme is back in the feature fiction realm with a vengeance. Armed with a witty, biting and absorbing script by Jenny Lumet, Demme has crafted the single best Cassavetes update I can imagine in the form of "Rachel Getting Married". And I don't mean that as a slight. In the way that Cassavetes used dinner and its impending conversations as a microcosm for the vitality and dysfunction of the American family, Demme has transposed those ideas into a 3 day weekend spent preparing for a wedding. As Kym, Anne Hathaway is a revelation. Released from rehab for the weekend to attend her sister's (Rosemarie DeWitt) event, she portrays her character as a full-bodied hurricane of stuttering emotions, repressed guilt and uneasy interaction with her upper middle class Connecticut family. Without saying anything in certain scenes... the way she hovers at the edge of the frame like the damaged runt of the family... and the way she destructively attempts to insert herself in her sister's happy times... it's uncomfortable to watch yet she makes Kym a sympathetic figure as the film wears on and her past becomes clear. Again, just an amazing performance by Hathaway. Demme immerses the viewer in a sea of characters over the course of the weekend, dwelling on the rehearsal dinner and the post wedding bash. "Rachel Getting Married" feels like one long unedited take from a cousin's home video camera, capturing overlapping dialogue, a dance party that shifts from belly dancers to hip hop with ebullience, and long speeches by the family members that radiate warmth and knowledge. If this sounds boring, trust me.. its not. "Rachel Getting Married" earns every second of its running time, brimming with life and affection. One of the very best films I've seen this year.

Zac and Miri Make A Porno

About halfway through Kevin Smith's "Zac and Miri Make a Porno", I was beginning to despise the whole thing. In the way that "Pineapple Express" sank beneath laborious scenes that felt improvised without a purpose, I was again quickly becoming bored by Seth Rogen's incessant attempts to throw in everything including the kitchen sink. But, believe it or not, some plot kicked in and I found myself going with the movie. Though not completely successful as a transformative romantic comedy (which Smith has done before with "Chasing Amy"), it works as a raunchy comedy. It doesn't win me over as a Kevin Smith fan yet, but he's trying and it certainly looks better than most of his previous films.

Heima: Sigur Ros

Either it's blind luck or both IFC and Sundance have decided to give more rep to idiosyncratic, alt-rock bands this month. I've already managed to catch Grant Gee's highly sought-after Radiohead documentary "Meeting People Is Easy" from the early 90's and now Sundance premieres "Heima". Following the atmospherically-sounding Icelandic band Sigur Ros (trust me, you know the band ... ever seen the "Children of Men" trailer? well they're featured prominently in it) as they return home from a world tour, "Heima" mixes the band's sound with spellbinding images of Iceland's unique landscapes and towns. But, instead of settling down with jet lag, Sigur Ros decides to tour Iceland and put on unannounced free shows around the country. This is not a behind-the-scenes look at the band- although it does feature bits and pieces of the band talking about themselves- but a celebration of their music as they attempt to give something back to their country. Some of the best moments include an impromptu acoustic session amongst a small group of protesters as they demonstrate against the building of a dam and the faces of the people (young and old) as they walk up and experience the stirring sound of the band for the first time. Highly recommended.

Quantum Of Solace

I've been trying to sum up my thoughts on the latest Bond film for a couple days, and I keep coming back to the quote by Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere when he wrote:"I knew 20 minutes or so into last night's Quantum Of Solace screening that I'd never see it a second time." I could not have said it any better. This thing lost me from the opening scene- it's edited in such an aggressive manner that I couldn't care less who died or what happened. Going back and watching the exhilarating opening scene from "Casino Royale" (which was one of my favs from last year) it's edited in the same style, but one that holds its shots for a couple seconds longer and gives the viewer a strong sense of logistics. Director Marc Forster possesses none of that sensibility with "Quantum of Solace". And it's not only the overwhelming sense of tension that's exempt from the latest Bond foray. Gone, also, is the emotional reverberance of Daniel Craig. In "Quantum of Solace", he has two emotions- pouting and angry. This is a complete failure in every regard.

And man do I love this time of year for movies. Planning on seeing "Synechdoce, New York" this week, "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Let the Right One In" next week.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trailers I Love

There's been 3 different trailers for Baz Luhrman's "Australia" now and I've been impressed by all of them. I'm hoping the actual film conveys the same sense of sweeping grandeur as this trailer. Things don't bode well for the film though. There's been no press screenings primarily because Luhrman is still editing parts of the film and then last week, news leaked that he was changing the ending? Regardless, I'll be seeing the film based on this trailer. And I think there should be a mandate that every film trailer has a score by Explosions In the Sky, one of my very favorite bands whose soulful instrumental music seems tailor-made for cinema.

And since I can never get enough of this Austin band, here's a bonus clip.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Los Angeles Plays Itself and Urban Growth (Decay)

As I alluded in an earlier post, a fellow blogger had read my Produced and Abandoned post and took pity on my lack of seeing Thom Anderson's "Los Angeles Plays Itself". A week later, I devoured the three hour documentary and confidently scratched it off my list. Now, 11 more to go. But not before I say a few words about this film. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Not only is "Los Angeles Plays Itself" a cinematic treasure that demands to see larger audiences, but any film that can surface a rarity like Kent Mackenzie's 1961 independent film "The Exiles" and help bolster it into an actual 2008 release deserves utter reverence.

Still, as a visual representation of one city's transformation from dust bowl to the excess capital that it's become today, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" has no peers. A few have tried, but Anderson's dry commentary and affinity for the city as it was and used to be is downright infectious. I've only been to Los Angeles once (I'll now always say Los Angeles since the film makes a damning indictment of reducing the sprawling place to initials as cheap as L.A.), but after watching this film, I too wished that the section known as Bunker Hill still existed. And I took a small victory away. After peppering his documentary with dozens of film clips that expose the architecture, history and recognizable facade of Los Angeles, I'd seen all but a handful.

The most resounding effect of "Los Angeles Plays Itself", though, lies in the way it caused me to assess the urban growth- and eventual decay- of my own city. Founded in the 1840's, Dallas hit its economic boom around the turn of the century with the formation of the "5 cities" (now East Dallas, Dallas, Oak Cliff, West Dallas aka the slums and Uptown). Today, Dallas is regarded as the most plastic city in Texas. Like Los Angeles, Dallas seems to hold onto very little of its history. Even legendary parts of the city such as Deep Ellum, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson played his earth-shattering original sound, is in deep commercial/artistic/population meltdown. The very building he recorded some of his songs in isn't even granted a historical marker, instead giving shelter to rats and the homeless. In fact, pretty much all of the city's history- whether its architecture or not- serves as little more than a bargaining chip for real estate brokers to buy cheaply and tear down so they can make way for the new W Hotel or that new billion dollar convention center. The only real difference between Los Angeles and Dallas is that we don't have the celluloid proof to remind us of what used to be there.

I've recently finished reading Warren Leslie's excellent book, entitled "Dallas Public and Private". Leslie, a journalist from New York, documented the comings-and-goings in and around Dallas as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. His outsider POV, plus the book's untimely release after the darkest day in my city's history (think November 22, 1963) reveal a bustling, energetic and ultimately self-conscious province of land that seemed to take itself seriously. Somewhere along the way, Dallas has lost that sense of time and place and cashed those beliefs in for the latest and greatest concrete marvels. If nothing else, "Dallas Public and Private" is a great time capsule read that makes one wonder "gee, that would be great if it still existed". One of my daily reads, the invaluable "Dallas Observer" blog Unfair Park, certainly realizes this as they routinely update readers of the latest city hall corruption scandal, long-time favorite eateries closing their doors, or city council meetings designated to 'discuss' decrepit sections of the city and its future. I know Robert Wilonsky and crew don't mean it to sound this way, but one could cite "Unfair Park" as a moratorium of the city. I suppose recognizing that one's history is slipping away is yet another way to fight it?

So, not the happiest of posts here, but it's pretty rare that a film stirs up the civil clarity of the mind. If anything, "Los Angeles Plays Itself" is a microcosm for -insert your own city name here-. If only we all had documentaries like this to shed light on the destructive pretenses of growth and renewal.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #20

I guess this should stand as some type of watermark (#20!). Regardless, the next 10 titles in my queue:

1. The Night of the Shooting Stars- No excuse for never seeing this one. I think IFC, back in the day, programmed everything else around this film. It was on continually. I might have caught bits and pieces, but I know I've never seen the whole thing. Anyway, this is as good a place as any to begin my viewing of the Taviani Brothers and their films.
2. God's Country- I've been working my way through the films of Louis Male for a couple months now, and I'm just left with his documentaries. There are several Malle films not available on DVD- namely "Alamo Bay" with Ed Harris which seems like a sure-fire DVD release given his popularity and the rarity known as "Black Moon" from the early 70's, which by all accounts, sounds like a pretty bat-shit science fiction film from the Frenchman. "God's Country" is another documentary by Malle about six years in the life of a small Midwestern farming community and the economic toll they take during the mid-80's. Sounds pretty prescient, huh?
3. Save the Tiger- Early 70's Jack Lemmon film in which he won an Oscar. Always heard raves about this downer film, and it just made it to DVD recently.
4. Battle of Okinawa- From the Netflix description: "It became known as the "Typhoon of Steel." Told from the Japanese perspective, this war drama captures the events of World War II's Battle of Okinawa -- a massive amphibious assault by U.S. troops that left more than 150,000 Japanese civilians dead. With the Allies wanting to capture Okinawa to stage a full-scale invasion of Japan, the battle raged from March through June 1945 with a ferocity unlike any other".
5. Bad Boys- Yes, the 80's Sean Penn film. I'm grasping at straws here, but I admire the guy's 80's stuff, especially when he goes all bug eyed and intense. Think "At Close Range". This one pits Sean Penn in jail fighting against his rival.
6. The Night They Raided Minsky's- With this and the upcoming "The Boys in the Band", William Friedkin is decently represented on DVD. This film charts the escapades of a young girl in a burlesque club in New York City. From all the descriptions I've read, it sounds like it was major influence on Abel Ferrera's recent "Go Go Tales".
7. Where the Sidewalk Ends- 50's noir starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, directed by Otto Preminger.
8. Brubaker- More 80's jailhouse cinema! Not that I intended for that, but this could serve as a nice double feature with "Bad Boys". Robert Redford film about a new prison warden who goes undercover to assess a state penitentiary.
9. Quintet- Yes, THAT Altman film that's been thoroughly ripped to shreds by critics and audiences alike. I believe star Paul Newman even disowned the final product. One of the very few Altman I've never seen.... and I've seen his very worst.
10. Before the Rain- Criterion film release. It's hard to deny the quality of Criterion, even when I know very little about the film: "Director Milcho Manchevski explores the circle of violence that pervades the Balkans and the way ethnic bloodshed can spill over into more "civilized" countries. Photographer Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija) is wracked with guilt for having caused a man's death while covering the war in Bosnia. Now, he intends to leave England and his lover (Katrin Cartlidge) for Macedonia in hopes of making amends in the violently unstable country of his birth."

Saturday, November 08, 2008

MOTM: Red Rock West

The Movie of the Month for November, suggested by Fletch at Blog Cabins turned out to be one of my very favorites from the early 90's- John Dahl's "Red Rock West". Let me the count ways I like thee:

1. Dwight Yoakem: The country-western singer turned actor is nothing new. After all, Willie Nelson has fared pretty well since the early 80's. But with Yoakem, "Red Rock West" proved that his presence as a supporting actor was a lot more than gimmicky. His career-topper still lies in his performance as the drunken father/husband in "Sling Blade", but "Red Rock West" momentarily introduced the world to Yoakem the actor. It's a small role, but an indelible one.
2. Neo noir: When I first saw "Red Rock West" in '94 (though it was released in 1992 on TV), the term neo-noir was being thrown around liberally. Filmmakers as diverse as Stephen Soderbergh, James Foley, the Coen Brothers, Stephen Frears and Carl Franklin had all taken successful stabs at the genre. But with "Red Rock West", director John Dahl felt like the most faithful interpreter of this newly coined genre. The images of Wyoming at night- while diametrically opposed to the usual hangouts and locales of traditional film noir- made me realize that greed, deception and murder doesn't always have to happen in that city back alley. It can happen anywhere. "Red Rock West" seemed to open new doors to the genre. It even inspired my own attempt at screenwriting (unsuccessfully) to produce the same style of "western" noir. If nothing else, it's a film that stirred my creative juices.
3. Lara Flynn Boyle: I've always had an attraction to dark haired females, and in 1994, Lara Flynn Boyle was the it girl as far as I was concerned. After seeing her in Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and the gen-X comedy "Threesome", I was hooked on this sultry actress. Her femme fatale wife in "Red Rock West" did little to damper my attraction to her. Someone needs to bring her back onto the big screen.
4. Dennis Hopper: Like Dwight Yoakem, is there really much to say about Hopper? He shows up in a pink Cadillac with horns on the front, wearing a hat bigger than the car itself and chewing up the scenery. There were lots of roles like this for him in the early 90's. He knocked it out of the park.
5. John Dahl: Perhaps the biggest winner in all of this was director Dahl himself. After having this small film gain critical favor on the film festival circuit, it was given a proper release and generated a strong following. His next film, the equally delicious femme fatale noir "The Last Seduction" (with an equally seductive dark haired beauty in Linda Fiorentino) propelled Dahl into the mainstream. He's crafted a few missteps in the last couple of years (the saggy war drama "The Great Raid" and the even worse hit-man-in-midlife-crisis comedy "You Kill Me"), but I have faith that he'll stumble back into the fold of the auteurs.
6. Nicholas Cage: It's hard to suffocate my contempt for Cage the actor, and I guess all I can really say about his performance in "Red Rock West" is that he doesn't sink the picture. But truthfully, his sad-sack loser mug fits pretty nicely with the situation he finds himself in as loner Michael. If there was ever a face for the double-crossed loser, Cage is your man!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The First of Eastwood's One-Two Punch?

It's probably an understatement, but isn't it refreshing to see an American filmmaker working at the breakneck speed of Clint Eastwood? It's like having our very own Takashi Miike. This year is no different with two Eastwood films set to appear within two months of each other. And if his first, "Changeling", is any indication of the raw power that we're dealing with here, then I expect great things from "Gran Torino".

But, back to "Changeling". This is a great movie. It'll be easy for some to dismiss "Changeling" as mediocre sap because Eastwood trades in such big, outward emotions. The loss of a child here (and with "Mystic River" from a few years ago... a film I still believe to be one of the finest of this decade), suicide in "Million Dollar Baby", a doomed late-life relationship in "The Bridges of Madison County"- all of these topics are ripe for satire in a lot of circles. But with Eastwood, he means it. Economical almost to a fault, his films require you to recognize and embrace the base emotions in life. Sure, there's some allegory, but mainly he just wants to tug at the heart strings and present stories about life, loss, redemption and courage. "Changeling" pretty much covers all the above. As the persecuted and emotionally distraught mother, Angelina Jolie carries the film remarkably well. She effectively paints her character, Christine Collins, as a woman divided by the circumstances in her life when her son goes missing and the police return a boy who she doesn't believe to be her son. In the first half of the film, Jolie renders Christine as a diminutive figure... so much so that when she follows police up the steps of the Los Angeles station, she almost disappears against the swarm of black umbrellas and suited men around her. And before that, her first phone call to the police is handled with riveting delicacy as her voice gently cracks when she tries to explain her son is missing. Whether this was a conscious decision by Jolie and director Eastwood or one of those harmonious cinematic coincidences remains to be explained, but it's a beautiful moment that underscores the desperation of the scene. Then, when the second half forces Christine to rise up against the big wheel of police corruption, she admirably delivers in that respect as well. Bottom line, I wouldn't have any problem seeing Jolie nominated for an Academy award.

The common complaint I've heard about "Changeling" is it's unfocused attention to several different storylines. Eastwood takes swipes at the medical system, a Rush-Limbaugh like religious pundit (John Malkovich) who flocks to the aide of persecuted Jolie, and an especially gruesome police investigation of a serial killer. In the end, all three aspects of "Changeling" converge into a convincingly moving examination about loss and hope. From first frame to last, this is a film that kept me engaged- engaged in the performances, engaged in the narrative turns and fully absorbed in the epic panorama of Eastwood's Los Angeles circa 1928. It's becoming vogue to praise anything that derives from the hands and eye of Eastwood, yet "Changeling" fully deserves the respect.

Monday, November 03, 2008

On Generation Kill

My love for HBO series needs no explanation here. I hope I've done that thoroughly in the past. And it just keeps developing. Since 2003, there's been no shortage of fictional and non-fictional works detailing our presence in Iraq post September 11th. With "Generation Kill", the creators of the brilliant "The Wire" (David Simon and Ed Burns) again step into a war zone littered with bureaucratic bullshit, idiotic chains of command and procedural headaches. From a police lieutenant who spends more time ogling Hustler in his office to the wrong turn of an army captain that lands his unit 25 miles off course, Simon and Burns completely seem to understand the fallacies of those higher up the food chain and they've made a veritable celluloid history out of these dunces. In "Generation Kill", there's respect and empathy for the common soldier as they serve as a Greek chorus to the screw-ups in charge. While we get to know and appreciate their sense of humor, we're also inundated with their overwhelming boredom during the first week of the Iraq invasion. It's not long that we want them to kill somebody as much as they want to. But, "Generation Kill" has more pressing matters on its mind- such as the right time to take a shit in the desert, exactly how friendly fire comes about, and how one soldier's demeanor abruptly shifts after his supply of Ripped Fuel runs out. This series may not satisfy the bloodthirsty crowd of the "Full Metal Jacket" devotees, but it certainly feels like the more representative picture of modern warfare. And remember, this is certainly not Vietnam.

Full of sharp characterizations and heavy on the military-speak (which in some cases takes a few episodes to figure out), "Generation Kill" is heavy on the insider vibe. Perhaps the only reason it translates to someone who didn't serve in the military is due to the presence of Rolling Stone reporter Evan (Lee Tergesen) whose memoirs the 7 part series is based on. As a cypher of ordinariness, Evan is our opportunity for someone to slow down the proceedings and say "umm, what does that mean?" In a battalion of adrenaline-rushed, self appointed "criminals back home", Evan (and we) watch as First Recon marines press further and further into Iraq. The quagmire of civil war, lawlessness, sickness and faulty military judgements mounts. While not completely condemning the military, "Generation Kill" creates several evocative members of the crew. There's Sgt. Colbert (Alexander Saarsgard) who recognizes the aloofness of fellow soldiers and spends most of the series trying to cover the ass of his subordinates so they make it home alive. There's Corporal Person (a wonderful James Ransome, recognizable from Season 2 of "The Wire") who dishes out most of the show's humor as a fast talking, wisecracking, movie/song quoting machine who deserves his own talk radio show rather than fighting a war in the Middle East. And there's Dock (Jonas Lotan) who tries his hardest to provide good medical care for wounded Iraqi children shot by trigger happy marine Trombly (Billy Lush). It's this disconnect between the desire to spread some type of good and the blind obedience to military order that stirs the center of "Generation Kill". And, like the best "war movies", it manages to create an unnerving sense of violence that any one of these characters could catch a bullet in the Kevlar at any minute. There's plenty of mistakes, but the idea that these guys are doing a service for their country and putting their lives on the line is never far removed... which makes those mistakes even more incredible. In that regard, some people may say that Baltimore got off a little easier than Iraq in Simon and Burns' uniquely trenchant portraits of law and order.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Regional Review: The Unforeseen

The idea of a documentary about the impending collapse of a nature reserve due to housing development and urban sprawl sounds amazingly dry, but in the hands of documetarian Laure Dunn (and executive producers Terence Malick and Robert Redford), the notion suggests something close to riveting crime scene analysis. In the late 70's, the boom of Austin, Texas poised an interesting dilemma- continue to grow as the state's capital and expand through modern architecture and urban development or maintain its "country family" outlook with a few dashes of liberal (i.e. environmentalists) state of mind. The center of attention for "The Unforeseen" becomes Barton Springs, the largest natural spring water pool in the United States, located in an area that comprises over 300 acres south of Austin. As Austin grew and suburban housing developments became a modern way of slicing up the land and morphing into a metropolis, the city was faced with a dire situation that pitted government against the lowly voter. A political tug of war ensued into the late 80's as the film carefully charts the ebb and tide of manipulative funding institutions, development Realtors, common folk who reminisce about a Barton Springs before pollution, and even George W. Bush. If it's about the evils of Texas politics, then you can be sure W makes an appearance.

But even though Dunn's sympathies are clearly laid out from the beginning (why else make a movie about this??), she does a respectable job of presenting some gray areas as well. The film begins with the life story of Gary Bradley, a West Texas real estate developer who gets in over his head with the housing market in Barton Springs. Inching closer and closer to bankruptcy as the fight over Barton Springs dovetails over the years (and eventually martyred as the scapegoat when the banking and loans crisis hits in the late 80's), Bradley still isn't painted as the big bad corporate guy. Dunn portrays him as a man who simply wanted to make his mark in his homeland state and give something back to the land that nurtured his farming family as a child. In this regard, "The Unforeseen" becomes an even handed examination of the problem. And when Bradley sheds a few tears over the experience, it doesn't ring hollow. Even though I personally have never been to "Barton Springs", I feel a little closer to it's natural landscape and the battles that have given it new life.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Performances I've Loved This Year (so far)

With a slate of films about to jockey for position in the upcoming awards season, I wanted to take this time to point out some memorable performances that, I hope, don't get lost in the chaotic shuffle for oscar gold. In no order:

1. Winona Ryder

Even though she only has a small role in former "Heathers" scribe Daniel Waters' dark sex comedy "Sex and Death 101", when she is on-screen towards the end, it's a magical moment. Playing a serial killer who makes love then murders people, Ryder graces the film with an airy, charismatic performance full of humor and wit. Her line readings are near perfect. After this and her wonderfully crazy turn in "The Ten", here's hoping Winona has a mini comeback in her. While the rest of the film is mired in sub-par performances (looking squarely at lead Simon Baker), I'm still surprised "Sex and Death 101" hasn't caught on as a type of cult favorite. Maybe it was the marketing. Maybe it was the poor release date. Either way, this movie should gain new life on DVD.

2. Olivia Thirlby

After crashing through to the popular consciousness in last year's little-film-that-could "Juno", Thirlby followed that performance up with two very good roles that are a little less show-me than I'm sure her agents would've liked. First, as a sensitive teenager in David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels", she manages to defy every teen movie cliche and imbue the intellectual loner as something real and three dimensional. While a majority of Green's family maudit drama is overbearing and morose, the relationship that Thirlby and actor Michael Angarano form is a tender respite from the doom and gloom. Next, in "The Wackness"- a film I personally disliked due to lead actor Josh Peck- Thirlby embodies a free spirited teen who oscillates from horny to stand-offish like the best 'teases'. And that's not a slap against her. Her performance, along with the always respectable Ben Kingsley, is very very good.

3. David Stratharn

As an alcoholic fighting the urges to notice his wife (Rachel Weiscz) flirting with every other guy in the bar, David Strathairn damn well deserves a supporting actor nom for his performance in Wong Kar Wai's elegant "My Blueberry Nights". Episodic and moody, Strathairn's performance is just one of many in the film as wandering Norah Jones stumbles across the United States in search of... something. Strathairn's embodiment of the alcoholic in one segment is just supremely moving and completely unorthodox.

4. Andrew Garfield

John Crowley's "Boy A" is a psychological puzzle of a movie, flashing the past in subliminal portions, while at the same time following "Jack" (Andrew Garfield) as he attempts to start his life over and leave the past behind him. More intellectual than emotional, Garfield gives a breathtaking performance that easily reveals how even 'bad' people can try to do good. I look forward to more of his work.

5. Michael Shannon

In "Shotgun Stories", Jeff Nichols' slow burn Southern Gothic debut, Michael Shannon should gain additional credibility as a character actor in the strongest sense of the word. So good in last year's "Bug", Shannon again takes his steely gaze and puts it to good use as the oldest brother desperately trying to keep a cool head in a family squabble that escalates into shocking violence. At first glance, Shannon feels like a one-note performer, but on second glance there's a lot broiling beneath the surface of his intimidating visage. If you haven't seen "Shotgun Stories", I highly recommend it.

6. Robert Downey Jr.

Yea, it's probably a cheat to include him in this list since everything the guy touches lately turns to gold, but his performance in "Tropic Thunder" is so funny and self reflexive, that it deserves mention. This is a supporting performance that is made even funnier when you just watch his reactions and don't listen to his dialogue.

7. Kristen Stewart

I first noticed Stewart in last year's "Into the Wild", a film that's certainly more memorable for its supporting cast than director Sean Penn's hippie outlook and nature landscapes. Stewart played the short-lived romantic interest of Emile Hirsch in a hippie commune. Scantily dressed for most of the film, yes, but her performance showed genuine talent. In Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?" released last week, Stewart plays the daughter to hot shot Hollywood producer Robert DeNiro who barely has time for her- that is until she shows up grief stricken at the funeral of a fellow producer (whose 40 years old) who commits suicide. That certainly gets DeNiro's attention. Only featured in two scenes of Levinson's way-too-insider-comedy, Stewart again almost steals the show through her moody mannerisms and mature outlook on life. I think she's in some small movie called "Twilight" later this year that just might launch her into a higher tax bracket.

8. Richard Jenkins

My money is on Jenkins for a Best Actor win this year. No performance has been quite as masterful as his embodiment of Walter Vale, the widowed professor who becomes involved in an immigration battle when he finds two strangers renting his New York apartment. Jenkins has been such a strong character actor for so long, that his first major leading role shouldn't be a surprise. Still, "The Visitor" is one helluva film held together by his emphatic performance.

I'm curious.. who did I leave off? Thoughts on your own favs?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

2 Very Different Zombies

The zombie genre has metastasized into something brutal and relentless. Gone are the days of George Romero's slow-walking, mummified dead things. After Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" (and to some extent Zach Snyder's re-interpretation of Romero), the zombie turned into a rapid killing machine that couldn't be outrun. It was a disturbing scenario- here were flesh eating beings that can usually catch their prey and tear into it with ferocious hatred. In our video game inspired-ADD diagnosed-lifestyles, I suppose this evolution to bigger, stronger, faster was inevitable. But, that doesn't always make the zombie genre more enjoyable (if enjoyable can be applied to horror films for some). At times, turning the clock back and representing the living dead as normally paced people can be a refreshing diversion. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that I never imagined spending a whole post talking about the noticeable differences in 'zombies'. They truly have immersed themselves in pop culture. Two films I recently watched underscore the wide gap in vision about zombies. While I prefer to say little about both films as a whole since they're both pretty much middling efforts, I did take great pleasure in watching how both films represented their respective creatures.

First, John Erick Dowdle's "Quarantine" follows suit with the more modern wild and fast zombie interpretation (or mutated humans... we could quibble all day over what makes a zombie a "zombie" I suppose). Filmed in hand-held style ala "The Blair Witch Project", this film's creatures come bursting out of the dark corners with the single desire to shock and awe the audience. They're rabid and bloodthirsty and armed with little subtlety- until the ending which tosses in an extremely effective set-piece in an attic. "Quarantine" is certainly a 2000 AD zombie movie, built to scare and gross out. White it's no fault to the zombies as to why "Quarantine" ultimately fails as a horror movie- or for that matter due to the good lead performance of Jennifer Carpenter from "Dexter" fame- the rabid and fast zombie may be on its way out. One can only ride the ferocity of these creatures so far before we become bored with the idea and move onto something else. And that's exactly where the next film takes us.

"They Came Back", released in 2005 and just now making it to these shores on DVD, is French filmmaker Robin Campillo's version of the living dead centered around an intriguing exploration of the genre. A horde of loved ones slowly wanders back into their hometown one day. No, they aren't out for brains. They don't have the scent of rotting flesh. They look just as ordinary as anyone else in this French city. The city sets up warehouses for them to live in as they acclimate themselves back into society. There's no explanation. The government studies them, observes their blank nature and creates a drug that will help keep them under control. The only drawback to these 'returnees'? They have limited memory, never sleep and seem damned to wander the night in directionless paths, even when their loved ones lock them up in bedrooms. Of course, these zombies do harbor (abstract) ulterior motives, but Campillo's film is much more interested in the damage that arises in the psyche of the living after their loved ones returns than satisfying the usual tropes of the zombie movie. There are moments of fleeting creepiness (the blank stare of Mathieu played by Jonathan Zaccai and a little boy falling off a balcony ledge then slowly getting up and wandering into the night) but Campillo's film is so hermetic and static that it borders on tedious. Like the best pretentious French art, it shows a lot and explains little. For an ambitious entry in the zombie genre, this is dangerous territory and one that many will be turned off by. Look for brain-munching madness elsewhere. This is 'zombie avant garde'.

Still, regardless of the individual merits of either film, they both stand as interesting testaments to an ever evolving genre. Where it has to go next, I have no idea, but I'm sure it will be entertaining... and hopefully a little gross too.