Monday, March 31, 2008
Above- picture looking out over the strip.
My one celebrity encounter, and I'd already met him (and run away from him as a kid.. which is a story for another time). Pete Rose signing autographs in Caeser's Palace.
If I would've been smarter, I would've carried my work Treo with me more often since sending pictures is much easier than on my crappy personal AT&T phone, which holds the really great shots such as two nights at Hofbrauhaus Bavarian Restaurant, the BEST time I've ever had in Vegas over 3 trips now. Tons of German sausage, ham, authentic German beer drinking games, music, and the most important... microbrewed beer served in LITER glasses. Yes, liter. Needless to say, 2 of these bad boys had me flying. And a later story will certainly have to be told about me befriending the head musician in the band and drunkedly staggering out with him as he sings authentic German songs, making my entire party in the waiting cab say "what the hell?" Good times. Good times.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Tagged with an all star cast (and about half the cast of Saturday Night Live), "Southland Tales" is certainly ambitious, at times exceeding its grasp on forming a cohesive narrative. The outrage against the current administration is clear, but beyond that, Kelly's apocalypse dream is muddled between several different groups carrying out their New Year's resolutions. There's Dwayne The Rock Johnson as the guy stuck in the middle of neo-Marxist groups, his important political family and wife (an incredibly sexy Mandy Moore), porn star Krystal Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the body double of the film's key character played by Seann William Scott. And did I mention that The Rock has amnesia and isn't sure exactly which side he's on? Bottom line, the plot synopsis could go on for six more paragraphs and I'm sure the interpretation for each narrative strand could be heavily disputed. My interest in "Southland Tales" is its almost nouvelle vague approach to such heavy material. In between the crass political posturing (which is surely meant as satire since Kelly employed Nora Dunn, Sherri Oteri and Amy Poehler as key speaking heads of the various Marxist factions), there's a playful sense. Some of the humorous diversions include Justin Timberlake lip syncing to The Killer's marvelous song "All These Things I've Done" as red-wigged chorus girls flock around him, or the smoothly constructed long Steadicam take as each character is introduced at the film's party finale. These diversions add little to the overall story besides a "cinematic look at me" equivalent to a small child's tantrum, but they work. If anything, "Southland Tales" plays like a film director who may not get the chance to work again, so everything and anything goes. There are so many ideas crammed into the framework of "Southland Tales" that if you blink, you most certainly might miss something and for me, I love that type of go-for-broke attitude every now and then. Much like Wim Wender's extraordinary "Until the End of the World" (another epic and maligned heady sc-fi effort), "Southland Tales" is brimming with creative ideas that trample on one another. Both films excel in mood, not straight forward storytelling and I can appreciate both.
While I'm not a full-on Kelly apologist, I will defend "Southland Tales". While "Donnie Darko" certainly has its admirers, there are those who fail to understand the cult appeal of Kelly's debut feature. "Southland Tales" has seemingly signed up as the next film where dividing lines are being crossed. There's no middle ground with "Southland Tales". It's either love or hate. And while I stated earlier that its taken two viewings before some semblance has formed within "Southland Tales", I'm ready to give it yet another try. Once one understands where the characters are headed, its much easier to fill in the gaps early on. It's that type of compulsion to understand "Southland Tales" that probably drove Kelly to write and film such a maddening trip- or you could fall into the group of people who feel Kelly wrote both films while high on shrooms and the audience is highly encouraged to view the finished product in the same state of mind. Either way, "Southland Tales" needs to be seen for its adulterated attempt to say something about the quagmire of our current situation, both politically and morally. Instead of creating a documentary, he chose to express himself with porn stars, amnesiacs, troubled war veterans and wiretappers. I find that more interesting any day of the week.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Framed in a decidedly New York state of mind, Auster's novels are sprawling yet intimate portraits of groups of people in New York City. Sprawling due to the often cob-webbed array of characters but intimate because so much detail is given to describe the minute details of their various sojourns around the city. So much attention is given to the city geography in Auster's novels that they often come accompanied by a small map of the "paths of the characters" in the flap of the novel. And no section of the city is spared- from upper Manhattan to the depths of Brooklyn, Auster's men and woman are vehicle-less souls left to ponder and observe the expansive city on foot. Another common thread to the novels (and much like his scripts) is the tragic depletion of emotional attachments to the main (often male) characters. Whether it's divorce and a chosen life of solitude, sickness or a plane crash, Auster's main protagonists are empty vessels for an adventure. All but given up on finding happiness again, its the coincidences and hands of fate that magically set in motion so many of his novel's narrative strands. In my favorite novel, "The Book of Illusions", the theme can't be echoed any louder. A writer, suffering with the loss of his family in a plane crash, inexplicably stumbles across the silent films of a vaudeville comedian named Hector Mann. Seeing this as a viable reason to quietly re-enter his life, the writer sets off on a personal journey to write the ultimate biography of Mann, eventually finding a great deal more than he'd planned. As a novel, it's virtually unfilmable. Almost all of Auster's novels seem unfilmable. They're so dense and wind back and forth in time and place, that they can probably only exist in novel form. With the exception of director Philip Haas adapting Auster's allegorical book "The Music of Chance" into a quirky early 90's film, the closest Auster has come to self adapting his own writing is the 2007 film "The Inner Life of Martin Frost". Based on one of the fictional films of Hector Mann discovered by the writer in "The Book of Illusions", the film-within-the-book takes up approximately 10 pages in the novel. Auster fell in love with the idea so much, that he assembled a small cast and filmed it last year. In his latest novel, "The Brooklyn Follies", the milieu is similar to that of the film "Smoke"- an entourage of closely intersected New Yorkers dealing with life, new love and old family ties. But the real marvel of the book comes on its last paragraph. After creating a joyous and lively story, Auster closes his novel with "it was eight 'o' clock when I stepped out onto the street, eight 'o' clock in the morning on September 11, 2001 just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Just two hours after that, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death. But for now it was still eight 'o' clock, and as I walked along the avenue under that brilliant blue sky, I was happy my friends, as happy as any man who had ever lived." It's easy to use the September 11th tragedies as a crutch to elicit easy emotions from people, but in "The Brooklyn Follies", the crushing realization that the entire novel before this statement was simply an evocation of a city and a world ultimately changed, and one begins to understand the quiet devastation that builds in all of Auster's work.
While the two books mentioned above are seemingly intertwined in the way they juggle common themes, there's also a divisive quality to Auster's novel. The book "Timbuktu" takes as its point of view that of a dog named Mr. Bones. Not only a bold narrative move, but it gives Auster the leverage to point out some pretty damning flaws about man that might've been lost otherwise. Auster has also played with the conventions of film noir in his trilogy including "City of Glass", "The Locked Room" and "Ghosts". Stripped down to the barest essence of a crime novel, each one is a quick read but they often come back to haunt you. Giving characters names like Mr. Blue and Mr. Black, eschewing major plot points altogether and jumping ahead in time (think "No Country For Old Men"?), and spending 50 pages on the details of how to successfully tail someone around New York City, it felt like Auster was sick and tired of the usual hard boiled novels and tapped out three short novels in his distinctive voice that are "noir" and "thriller" in the loosest sense of the word. Other books by Auster including "Oracle Night", "Mr. Vertigo" and "Moon Palace" are interchangeable for the way they mysteriously throw a journey on someone and describe the character's adventure in haunting and believable ways. I've yet to read one of Auster's books that has failed to immerse my senses. Each one is distinct in time and place, even though the terrain may be the concrete jungles of New York. And when he turned to film, he crafted 4 films that immerse the viewer in this same distinct style. But Auster's entrance into the film scene wasn't a curtain-call for his novels. Even during this manic stint in the mid to late 90's, he continued to write, producing some of the best novels of his life. His intelligent voice and attention to 'stopping time to tell a story' naturally progressed into images on celluloid. He simply expanded his work to a broader audience.
The opportunity for Auster to jump behind the camera came when director Wayne Wang, whom Auster had collaborated with during the writing of the screenplay for Wang's 1995 film "Smoke", asked him to co-direct. As Auster himself explains on the commentary track, when the typical moment of departure came between writer Auster and filmmaker Wang, the moment was subverted by Wang's insistence that he hang around and help direct the picture (much to the dismay of the Director's Guild). Auster complied and this relationship carried forward over 2 films. After the finale of "Smoke", the cast hung around and knocked off a second, more improvisatory feature, entitled "Blue In the Face". While both films feature enthralling attributes, it's the simple idea of storytelling that sets "Smoke" apart. This is a film full of mesmerizing stories, none more so than the final one told by actor Harvey Keitel as the camera slowly closes in on his face for over 4 minutes. It's a simple, direct moment that epitomizes the singular mind of Auster. Two men, shaken by tragic pasts, share a quiet moment together, talking in their Brooklyn neighborhood. In fact, this brief description could serve as the plot synopsis for a majority of Auster's work. But besides the art of storytelling, "Smoke" is also a heartfelt exploration of family.There's one character (a wonderful Harold Perrineau) searching for his father (another wonderful Forest Whitaker), one character (William Hurt, the alter ego of Auster here) reeling from the tragic death of his pregnant wife, and then Auggie (Harvey Keitel) suddenly confronted with the revelation that he has a daughter whose pregnant and struggling with drug addiction. In between the bits of verbal wisdom, writer Auster and director Wang crafted an emotionally compelling patchwork of characters that rivals the gentle wisdom found in so many of Robert Altman's best films.
With "Blue In the Face", the cast of "Smoke" (and assorted stars like Michael J. Fox, Roseanne Barr and Lily Tomlin) hang around the same cigar shop depicted in "Smoke" and laugh, curse and largely improvise their way through 12 different vignettes scripted by Auster. While not a complete success, it's an engaging effort that grows on one if they can accept its gimmicky nature. This is, after all, an actor's film and Auster and Wang allow for their stars to have their moments in the sun.
Auster's first solo directorial effort was 1998's "Lulu On the Bridge", a magical little film that deserves to be seen twice so one can fully engage with it on several levels. The cosmic games it plays with its two main characters, Harvey Keitel and a stunningly cute Mira Sorvino, is pure Auster- Izzy Keitel), a jazz musician, is wounded by a random shooting in the bar as he plays a set one night. Recovering from this accident, he loses the will to create music. As he's walking down a dark New York city street one night, he finds a man lying dead. In his hand is a paper bag that contains a phone number and a rock. He calls the number and connects with struggling actress Celia (Sorvino). Bound together by the seemingly magical powers of the rock (which begins to float and give off a powerful blue light), they are eventually separated when Celia takes the part of Lulu in an adaptation of "Pandora's Box". It's not long before thugs come looking for the magic rock and find it in the possession of Izzy. I completely understand... even reading this last paragraph to myself it sounds exaggerated beyond belief. But Auster makes it work. The connection between Keitel and Sorvino is highly electric and everything is explained in the end, but it's the weird diversions and sense of cosmic coincidence that makes "Lulu On the Bridge" such a unique experience. And, when comparing this film to some of his earlier novels, the idea of fate, chance encounters, and mystical allegories isn't out of left field. "Lulu On the Bridge" fits neatly into his canon.
It wasn't until 2007 that Auster returned to filmmaking with "The Inner Life of Martin Frost", a film that (as mentioned earlier) is the only attempt to adapt his novel work- or in this case 10 pages from a 275 page novel. Starring Martin Thewlis as a writer who retreats to a friend's Vermont cabin to recover from his weary profession. But (and auto biographical I'm sure) he suddenly gets the idea of a new novel and begins writing. Upon waking the next morning, he finds Claire (Irene Jacob) lying next to him in bed. She claims she also came to the cabin to rest and wasn't aware of Martin's presence. Slowly, they began a relationship, but an odd sickness falls over Claire and Martin begins to re-assess his focus in life. Like "Lulu On the Bridge", Auster is working on several layers here. Not only is this a chance meet between a couple that develops into a passionate romance, but the undertones of something otherworldly begin to seep to the surface. Playing it close to his vest for most of the film, "The Inner Life of Martin Frost" is not a completely successful venture. Gone are the longueurs of storytelling. Restricting himself to a tight narrative, there seems to be little room for the small moments, and things only become clouded in mood and tone when neighbor Jim (Michael Imperioli) and his niece, played by Auster's own daughter Sophie, show up. The film, given a small release in late '07, was afforded little word of mouth or critical favor.
While I've still got a few Auster books to go, his career in literature and film has been a rewarding journey for me. Not only have his words been a silent passenger with me on planes, but listening to his commentaries on all 4 DVD's reveals critical insight into his creative mind. Precise and deliberate with his speech, I'm sure he'd be a fascinating conversation. He's a man full of stories (whether they're true or not) and even as he speaks, one can sense more stories brimming to the surface. But, above all, Auster is a humanist and the essence of every single thing he writers boils down to 1 word- camaraderie. Whether it's killing time in a cigar shop or walking the streets of New York admiring the color of the leaves, Auster instills harmony in every passage, every frame and every story. I wish more artists had the courage to attempt that.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
1. Soylent Green- Is people! I'm sure I've seen this somewhere along the way, but can't remember a single frame of it besides Heston's screaming. Plus it's another Richard Fleischer film.
2. Lust, Caution- Ang Lee film that I missed last year because it was released on one measly screen in the metropolis of Dallas. And that's even AFTER all the buzz about its torrid sex.
3. Big Bang Love, Juvenile A- The 1,023rd film of Takashi Miike... or something like that.
4. Race With the Devil-If anyone has noticed my new thread of posts titled 70's Bonanza, it's directly related to my love for that decade of film making. I've got about 25 more 70's flicks in my queue right now. This one stars Warren Oates and Peter Fonda as guys who, while road tripping with their wives, inadvertently witness a satanic sacrifice. Then hell comes 'a callin. Sounds like great 70's fun.
5. Vagabond- Agnes Varda film that I used to see regularly listed on IFC or Sundance channel. I have neither now, so DVD is my next best option.
6. Dance Party USA- I can't say I'm looking forward to this much anymore. As discussions on earlier posts recount, my interest in the DIY movement is waning. This one is directed by Aaron Katz, whose "Quiet City" left me lukewarm. I'll still give it a shot, though.
7. Mafioso- Criterion DVD that was released this week. It has my interest piqued. Had never heard of it until the raves last year. Any film that deserves a theatrical release (as Melville's "Army of Shadows" last year) some 30 years plus has to be great, right?
8. The Idiot- One of the few Kurosawa I've yet to see.
9. The Laughing Policemen- 70's flick with Bruce Dern (god, I love him) and Walter Matthau. From Netflix description: "A serial killer pursues innocent bus riders in the city of San Francisco, and his spree culminates in the brazen murder of an entire busload of people. The horrific incident gets the attention of Detective Jake Martin (Walter Matthau), who's deeply affected by the senseless murders, as his partner was one of those killed. With a new partner (Bruce Dern) by his side, Jake digs deep into the darkest areas of the city to obtain justice." So is this movie just not good or is there a reason I haven't heard it being touted as an underrated 70's police procedural?
10. Scandal- The last film from the recent postwar Kurosawa film set released earlier this year.
Monday, March 17, 2008
"Rabid Dogs" could be considered a precurser to the modern wave of torture porn (on wheels) but Bava isn't an overt filmmaker. There is sadism and mental manipulation, but it stays within the grimy guidelines of early 70's exploitation. A quick breast fondle here, the constant waving of a switchblade there, and a particularly uncomfortable scene of Maria being forced to urinate standing up are the limits that Bava takes his narrative. The viewer is certainly turned off by the actions of the film's rabid dogs (named for the robbers overriding primal urges) but it's not on par with the gross-out aesthetic of recent torch carriers of the genre. And "Rabid Dogs" has the distinct pleasure of pulling out a finale that is completely unexpected and knocks the wind right out of you. This may be my new favorite Bava.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I'm a sucker for heist movies. Good, bad...it doesn't really matter. I'm the type that will watch all those obscure Alain Delon 70's flicks that were directed by Italians or D level French directors. So when I actually do see a good heist movie, it makes the experience all the more enjoyable. And when I see a heist movie done in 2008 that's somewhat smart and doesn't pander to the movie-going audience, keeping the dialogue firing on all cylinders and relying on good old fashioned suspense and character evolution, then that's cause to truly celebrate. Roger Donaldson's "The Bank Job" is just that. Jason Statham is relegated to only one very short fight sequence and head butt, while the rest of the film relies on whip-smart plot mechanics, double-crossings and some taut editing to heighten suspense. At the very least, this will make you want to run out and buy every copy of "The Asphalt Jungle" and "Riffifi" that one can find.
Marco Turco's documentary is the perfect antidote for anyone who gets too enamored with the sexy lifestyle of the Corleone family. Intellectually pulling back the veneer of the Mafia's entrenchment in Palermo, Italy, "Excellent Cadavers" is a harrowing documentary based on the research of writer and historian Alexander Stille (who produced a book on the subject as well). The film's main characters are two magistrates who dared to tackle the corrupt Italian political system in the 80's, but the real power of the film lies in it's uncensored and grotesquely vivid black and white photos of the Mafia's handiwork of violence and human casualty. Highly informative, moving, and one of the best documentaries of the last 5 years.
Hannah Takes the Stairs
I've yet to be impressed by the works of Joe Swanberg (or for that matter, the Duplass brothers) so his latest 'mumblecore' film is another grueling experience in slacker self-loathing, stammering, ugly photography and irritating score that sounds like two high schoolers practicing the trumpet and trombone, seemingly included just because it'd be cool to feature such self-deprecating music performed by the characters themselves. I admired the two works of filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (who has a starring role in "Hannah Takes the Stairs"), but my appreciation for this movement of independent creativity is wearing thin.
If you're not a fan of the increasingly polarizing work of Takashi Miike, then avoid "Zebraman", a comedy/action/satire/cartoon of a film that follows a nebbish schoolteacher who dresses up at night as an ex-television series hero called Zebraman and finds himself fighting real aliens who body snatch Japanese citizens. It's all done with tongue firmly in cheek, but the film starts and stops awkwardly. Whenever it's time for dialogue, Miike can't seem to find the right tempo. When Zebraman is in full fighting force, though, the film springs to life. A mixed effort.
Monday, March 10, 2008
He was simply thrilling to watch, even when the team was falling apart at the seams during that 2005-2006 season and he looked his age on the playing field. As the saying goes, you live by Favre and you die by Favre. Being the interception leader is not a flattering record to hold, but you take the great with the not-so-great in an athlete like Favre. I imagine there are alot of teams out there who'd take the not-so-great in a quarterback that resembles the finesse and results Favre has acquired. And then there were those truly great moments... so many over the years... but especially the play early this year when he escaped the sack rush, stumbled on his feet for 3-4 yards and shovel passed a completion to his wide receiver in blizzard like conditions. The play between Eli Manning and David Tyree will be remembered longer, but there was so much magic involved in this 38 year old QB pulling off such an acrobatic and aware play at that certain moment. This is why I like Favre the player.
And then we have Favre the man. While many may shudder at his "good 'ol boy" rhetoric, I always found something genuine about his personality. I didn't (and still don't) believe any of it was an act. It came across in interviews and it came through in his avoidance of casting a spotlight on mistakes and personal demons. We all know he had them, but they were handled with dignity. One has to admire that because, nowadays, when it seems 2/3rds of the players in most sports are continually the subject of breaking news, whether it be DUI, assault or the insane antics of PacMan Jones, Favre remained private. That's certainly an attribute we all can respect.
While there's little room for crying in any professional sport, Favre earned his poignant goodbye last week. Not only did I appreciate his sadness at walking away from the game he so dearly loved, but I suddenly felt like we had just turned a generational page in the NFL. Who's left? I doubt we'll ever see such a durable presence at that position again. Maybe in hindsight the image of Shane riding out on horseback isn't so far-fetched after all.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
But the recent winner has to be Anchor Bay. They've just begun releasing a series of DVDs known as their Cult Fiction section. You can check out the full release of ten titles this week at Harry Knowles' site.
The common complaint with this new series is that they've all been released in the past in some form or fashion, either Criterion editions or in bare-bones standard formats. And that's fine. Some of the cover designs alone would prompt me to buy this release over previous copies. Conceptually, they're not the most inventive, but there's something wildly cool about the saturated, washed out images pulled from the film and placed onto the worn-out covers. The films have a classic feel to them. Anchor Bay could certainly be blamed for riding the 'neo wave' of cult film frenzy unleashed by Tarantino and Rodriguez- and as much as I dislike these two filmmakers and some of their films, there's something to be said for the lip homage they shed on long lost films- but this series still directed my attention towards films like "Class of 1984", "The Quiet Earth" and "Road Games" which embellished my Netflix queue once again. The purpose of DVD production companies like the three mentioned above is to sell movies, allow people to watch movies, and bring attention to unheralded gems that will make people do both.
Just seeing some of the cover designs for this series brings back a flood of childhood memories when I'd walk through my local video store (you know the ones... huge selection of VHS with a curtained room that dad would always descend behind sometime during the trip) and venture into the horror film section. I knew I couldn't actually rent one of these titles yet, but the covers were like a magnet, giving me nightmares for several days and allowing my imagination to run wild as to what exactly those horrible creatures on the covers would do to people. Honestly, can you not look at this new cover for "CHUD" and not remember seeing that image burned into your memory as a child? Hell yes I'm buying this Anchor Bay edition, lack of special features or not. It's the nostalgia that binds.
Beyond the cozy memories, there are new titles that, honestly, I had never heard of before. There's an early 70's Mario Bava film called "Kidnapped" (or known as "Rabid Dogs" or 11 other titles I'm sure) that, upon research, is named by fans as an intense, gritty exploitation crime film. I'm so there. Then there's an early 80's film called "Road Games" starring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis as people terrorized by an omniscient vehicle. And still yet, a film called "The Quiet Earth" that explodes with favorable comments on Netflix from viewers calling it an eerie and overlooked sci-fi independent classic. Then you've got comedies such as "Return of the Killer Tomatos" and "Night of the Living Dorks". Yes, my friends, not even the original Killer Tomatos movie but the sequel. How's that for rifling through the vaults? And therein lies the joy of being a movie lover. Just when you feel like you might have a reasonably firm grasp on your hobby, a company like Anchor Bay comes along and knocks you flat on your ass. Thank God for companies like Anchor Bay.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
I didn't exactly love Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind", one of the worst experiences I've had in a movie theater this early season. While Gondry certainly makes movies with imaginative 'young kid gusto', this one searches for tone and mood early and never finds a rhythm. I'm not sure exactly what the hell was going on the first 45 minutes of this film. Was it slapstick (based on the magnetism of Jack Black sticking to everything metal), was it social drama (with Danny Glover making some weird secret cross-neighborhood odyssey to study a competition DVD rental store).. and what the hell is Mia Farrow doing as an old woman renting VHS movies, seemingly the most culturally alienated urban woman in the universe? None of it made any sense. When the "sweded movies" come into play, the laugh factor and visual inventiveness picks up considerably, but "Be Kind Rewind" plays like a film drastically out of touch with modern audiences. Pretty painful stuff.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Here's hoping one of my very favorite writer-directors turns in another early spring surprise with this one. I believe "The Spanish Prisoner", "Heist" and "Spartan" all received March/April releases and went onto rank in my favs of the year. This one looks to be just as good, full of razor sharp Mamet-speak and double crossings.