Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not Just Another Pretty Face?

If anything, one could call 2002 the 'break out' year for actress Shannyn Sossamon. That was the year she co-starred in the Josh Hartnett comedy "40 Days and 40 Nights" and the wonderfully dark adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' "The Rules of Attraction". I was struck by both roles... I'd never seen this dark haired beauty before but in both films, she managed to be seductive without really doing much at all. She reminded me of a much sweeter, less sardonic Winona Ryder from the early 90's. Even though I developed an attraction to her as an actress, she floated out of view for several years and I'd basically forgotten her. Then, last month I rented an indie film called "Wristcutters: A Love Story", and there she was, not looking a day older then she did playing a high schooler and then a college virgin in her successive 2002 roles. Here, she played the love interest of actor Patrick Fugit, both young people trapped in a hellish purgatory for people who commit suicide. But there was something different about her in "Wristcutters"- she seemed more confident and less involved with her role as a 'female' in a (mostly) male cast. She fit right in as one of the guys, exuding a welcome brashness. Her character, incessantly looking for someone "in charge" of the purgatory because her admittance there was a "mistake" lends an air of independence to her performance, but it's something more than that. If anything, Sossamon had progressed from the feminine college girl image into a woman seeking more than co-star status with actors like Josh Hartnett and James Vanderbeek. Not only was she the best thing in "Wristcutters", but she lent the film its emotional core. That's not always an easy thing to do. But then, I rented "One Missed Call" this week (don't ask me why... I'm a sucker for all horror), the remake of Takashi Miike's original from '03, and Sossamon seems to have fallen back into the scared, helpless college student role. Though she is given more to do than her co-stars, its still a relatively lazy and thankless performance. While there are moments when she shows a little more, its hard to get excited over a role in the ubiquitous j-horror remake cycle. Was this the only thing available to her? Has she fallen that far off Hollywood's radar or did no one besides me really get her? Whatever the reason, here's hoping the Hawaiian born Sossamon has more coming her way. Beauty and acting chops is a nice combo.

Then, a second B grade rental fully re-invigorated my complete attraction to Jessica Alba. Sure... its easy to throw stones at a glass house, but I watched "Awake" because, honestly, I'll watch anything with the great Terrence Howard. Surprisingly, it's not as bad as you might think. Though it does star Hayden Christensen as a young, rich man who undergoes a heart transplant surgery, there are plenty of surprises and twists to keep it energetic and compulsively watchable. Alba, getting plenty of sexy screen time, does a great job (gasp) here as the worried wife of Christensen. The less you know about "Awake", the more fun it'll be. Now I'm not ready to throw down the gauntlet and confess Alba as a beauty with full-on acting chops, but for the first time, I believed her as a character. She holds her own with a strong cast- well except Christensen who denigrates into his TWO acting modes, brooding and not-so-brooding.

Having survived the 'bikini syndrome'- i.e. starring in a movie where the actress is bikini clad for 90% of its running time- can be a career killer. Alba seems to have outgrown that mantra (and graduated to the fanboy obsession range with her sultry turn in "Sin City"!) but then a minor misstep in 2008. Like Sossamon, she starred earlier this year in "The Eye", a remake of a J-horror film. Sound familiar? While my intention is certainly not to draw attention to the obviously bad efforts of those types of films, I do contend that I forgive certain roadblocks from Alba and Sossamon. While I'm not ready to acclaim them on the same playing field as, say, Charlize Theron or Salma Hayek, they are hovering very close to the top of my stalker list (kidding). I'm simply ready to forget and forgive two cinematic missteps and hope they get their act together and star in separate Oscar driven epics in the near future. Or at least one of those boring period pieces like Keira Knightley. Anything to raise their cache. I certainly feel both of them have much more to give the movie-going public, Sossamon especially.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

French Horror Done Right

Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's "Inside" is terrifying. I don't know any other way to put it. After so many pf the recent wave of French horror films missed the mark ("Haute Tension", "Them", "The Ordeal"), Bustillo and Maury take a simple premise- a pregnant woman home alone on Christmas Eve, ready to give birth the next day, and the emergence of a sadistic other woman (simple billed as "the woman") trying to get to the unborn baby- and wrench every bit of tension and disturbing psychology out of it. Taking place largely in a single house over the course of the night, "Inside" is brilliant in the way it squeezes enormous chills out of lighting and camera placement. There's one stunning sequence as the pregnant woman sits on the couch, and a simple head move reveals a dark figure looming slowly behind her... and then the figure recesses back into the shadows as the pregnant woman stands up. It certainly could have been CGI, but if it wasn't, it reveals the keen eye of directors Bustillo and Maury for atmospheric scares.

The sadistic woman, played by sexpot actress Beatrice Dalle, is a relentless force as she sulks through the film in her flowing black gown, grabbing any sharp instrument she can as her weapon of choice. It's a ferocious performance, exemplified by the almost primal way she's framed in one scene from a long shot down the hallway as she violently kicks on the bathroom door that her prey is locked behind. Dalle is beautiful, but "Inside" juxtaposes that weird beauty in frightening ways. She's calm and exacting, which gives her kills an even more menacing feel. And then there's the blood. "Inside" probably flushed half its budget on buckets of blood. Imagine the shooting finale of "Taxi Driver"... how gritty and blood spread those scenes were and you get the idea about "Inside". The same style of lighting, exaggerated and yellow fluorescent, is used to the same effect in "Inside" by cinematographer Laurent Bares, but there are also extended lengths of time where low lighting (or full on blackouts) are the vision of choice. Sometimes, blackness in horror films depletes any energy, but here it elevates the tension as Bustillo and Maury give us glimpses of figures at the edge of the screen. And I've yet to mention the music, or lack thereof. While the opening gives us strings of orchestral music, once the action begins it turns into disconcerting noises, shrieking violins and an unnerving pulsating noise by musician Francios Eudes (also responsible for "Haute Tension"). Everything is done right and it blends into an altogether riveting and spellbinding masterpiece of horror. But is it really happening? "Inside" can be seen as many things. An attack on the restlessness of French youth and it's repercussions on suburban lifestyle (since the film takes place during the riots of French citizens)... the precarious and fragile state of mind of a woman about to begin her life as a mother... or an act of simple revenge? The film can be read several ways. No matter how you read it, it's an utterly disturbing experience, and one of the best films of the year.

Note- there are 2 versions out there. See the unrated version, which is about 7 minutes longer.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I Ain't Superstitious

Part of the reason why I love baseball so much is its reliance on tradition, unwritten rules and colorful history. Watch Ken Burns' 14 hour documentary, "Baseball" and you'd be hard pressed not to come away with an even greater appreciation for baseball's complex history of anecdotes. And, in a sport built around exaggerated hand gestures and strategic compromise, its amazing how much the sport is reliant on superstition. Think of that great scene in "Bull Durham" (culled from real life since director Ron Shelton played minor league ball for several years) where Jose (Rick Marzan) approaches the pitcher's mound, terrified out of his mind because his wife put a hex on his bat. The only thing that would cure the hex was the blood from a live chicken. And then "Major League" where Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) prayed to Buddha before every game. In the topsy-turvey real life season so far this April, superstition and hexes have come full circle to imprint their mystical charm on baseball fans.

Hexes in baseball can be attributed back to the Babe Ruth curse when he was traded from Boston to the Yankees back in the day, a curse that was finally broken in '04 when the Sox reclaimed the title (so there's hope for all curses then, I suppose?). And, those lovable loser Cubs certainly have had their share of otherworldly curses, beginning with the infamous billy goat incident, its brush with a black cat in '69, and more recently, that poor sap named Bartman. Wow, now that's some misery.

If the controversy between the Red Sox and Yankees isn't enough, there was the great story earlier this month when a construction worker tried to bury a David Ortiz jersey in the foundation of the new Yankee stadium. This could've been a curse for the ages. Equal to a 8.5 quake hitting California, this would have sent the Yankee organization into a tailspin. Why in the hell did the guy blab? Could you imagine releasing this info a year or 2 after the stadium was finished? The Steinbrenner family would nuke the whole stadium, find the jersey and start all over. Bottom line- when you pull a great jinx, keep it to yourself until the time is right. And then, earlier this week, another black cat sprang from nowhere and jumped onto the playing field and (possibly) cursed the Yankees season (you tube below). ESPN reporters joked that it looked like the same cat from the '69 Cubs season. In a sport full of nervous twitches- i.e. pitchers and their fascination with rubbing the brim of their hat and licking fingers.... or the way a third baseman will methodically and religiously groom the dirt in front of him before each inning- superstition is king and baseball players do not forget such things.

Locally, Dallas has experienced its own brush with the jinx, evoked several years ago by politicians anxious to crown a hometown team champion. It was 2005 and the Dallas Mavericks had advanced to the NBA finals. After taking a two games to nil lead in the series, mayor Laura Miller announced the proposed route for the title parade through downtown. After that announcement, the Mavericks lost 4 straight games. Since that series, not a single professional Dallas sports team had made it out the first round of ANY playoffs. The Mavericks were knocked out by a lackluster Golden State last year, the Cowboys (who many picked to win the Super Bowl last year- glad that didn't happen tho!) lost in the first round of their playoffs, and the Stars (until this year again, curse broken) had failed to exit the first round as well. 'Loserville' talk was in full swing, and Dallas sports fans still refer to it as 'the announcement' that's turned this town into a sports sinkhole. All I can say, with the exception of the Rangers who need no curse to be godawful, I'm kinda glad I don't have a rooting interest in any of those other 3 teams mentioned. Otherwise, I'd be very close to jumping off the ledge.

So, of this got me thinking. Is there anything to it? Probably not, but I love how personal psychology plays such an important role in the actions and outcomes of our lives. I'm sure there are a host of rituals that athletes go there in preparing themselves but how exactly does one prepare for a black cat to burst onto the playing field during a MLB game? I would guess none. It all depends on your personal belief in things. I know some friends who take ample stock in horoscopes or fortune cookies (!). I believe you make your own luck. And if I got freaked out every time I had a black cat cross my path, I don't know if I'd make it out of the house. Plus, I used to have a black cat as a pretty cool pet, so I'm partial there. If nothing else, the succession of superstitious acts prevalent in baseball this season has added some nice fun to the mix. And, I guess the joke's really on us since the Ortiz jersey dug up from beneath Yankee stadium sold for close to $200,000 yesterday.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not a Good Weekend At the Movies

88 Minutes

I'll see pretty much anything with Al Pacino in it, but Jon Avnet's "88 Minutes" is a poor excuse for a mystery/thriller. Not only does it feel 15 years too late with its numerous red herrings and straight to video performances from a cast that, itself, feels fifteen years too old (such as William Forsythe, Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Kara Unger, Amy Brenneman and Alicia Witt), but Pacino himself looks like he's sleepwalking through the whole thing. Whether this is due to Avnet's flat direction or a screenplay that was severely aged due to it's shelf life, "88 Minutes" is lurid to the extreme- and I mean that not in a good way. By the time the finale rolls around and we're (thankfully) revealed the culprit behind Pacino's 88 minute madness, I couldn't care less. A high rise building with construction being done on that floor, the killer holding hostages (1 victim held by a weird pulley system dangling over the edge), and Pacino looking around the area for clues while he tosses his gun to the side- how early 90's (or hell even late 80's Schwarzenegger) does that sound? Preposterous, boring and very bad.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

While certain moments of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" are insanely funny (Paul Rudd- "when life gives you lemons, you say fuck it and bail"), it doesn't sustain its full length premise quite as well as previous Apatow produced efforts. And whether that's due to Jason Segel's lack of leading man charisma or not, but "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is certainly the weakest of the films to come from the Apatow team pipeline. For the first time, the supporting cameos are becoming tiresome- none more so than Jonah Hill's turn as a star-crazed waiter at the resort- and some of the adult humor feels strained. But, while it fails on certain levels, the central relationship that blooms between Segel and actress Mila Kunis is heartfelt and believable... not only because they seem natural together but Kunis simply radiates every time she's on screen. I think part of the joy in previous ensemble comedies from this team of writers, actors and directors (assembled back in their "Freaks and Geeks" TV days) is the improvised feel of their work. You get some of that here, such as a scene involving both couples as they have dinner together which lapses into some terrifically funny banter degrading star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) and her choice of movie roles. Many other ideas miss the mark. One nauseating aside involves another couple at the resort as they struggle through the christening of the marriage, so to speak. It felt pointless and placed for shock value only. "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" earned their shock value. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" does not.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Trailers I Love

Saw this trailer before "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" this weekend. I hope it can live up to the hype of the trailer, and with indie fav David Gordon Green at the helm as director, here's hoping it has more bite than bark. Still, an odd marketing choice though... I read this opens in early August with "Tropic Thunder opening just 2 weeks later? I would think two high-profile comedies, both earning monumental internet buzz already, would give each other some breathing room. Will this cause one of the two to fizzle on arrival? Regardless... can't wait.

And because I'm such a nice guy, bonus trailer for "Tropic Thunder". And seriously.... I've been a fan of Robert Downey Jr. since the late 80's when I saw him in things like "Less Than Zero" and "The Pick Up Artist", only to be impressed with him in almost every movie since then. One of the top 5 actors post 1980. If this year doesn't propel him into international stardom, I've lost all faith in the movie-going public.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DVD Shout Out- State of Play

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Television has become the stomping grounds for some riveting viewing. And while I've combed over some of the finest series that HBO has to offer, I feel like I'm missing a large sample of some of the best out there via the BBC network. David Yates' six hour mini-series titled "State of Play", released in 2003 and out on DVD this month, confirms my belief.

Edited and paced to breathless perfection, "State of Play" follows a crew of journalists as they try to uncover the reasons behind the suicide of a powerful politician's research assistant. On the same day, a young black youth is executed in an alley. Lead journalist Cal (John Simm) picks up the story, initially, due to his once close friendship to the politician (David Morrissey) who lost the female assistant. It's not long before corruption, sex scandals and shady backdoor dealings overtake the investigation. As Cal inches closer to the truth, director David Yates treats the winding narrative as if he's examining the complicated maneuvers of the Cold War, which means every whisper or newly uncovered fact is treated with paranoia, deception and intrigue. There's not a false moment in the entire six hour series, which boats strong supporting performances from faces such as Kelly MacDonald (sooo good as a Texas wife in "No Country For Old Men") who gets to show off her extremely sexy Glascow accent in every scene, and the great Bill Nighy who won a BAFTA for his role as the paper's editor. Rounding out the group of hard-nosed, relentless journalists is Benedict Wong (from last year's "Sunshine"), James MacAvoy (now the new heartthrob after his leading role in "Atonement") and Amelia Bullmore.

"State of Play" belongs in that category of incessant viewing. Spanning two discs, I actually got upset that I had to wait before the next disc was shipped to me. It's not that each episode ends on a cliffhanger, but Yates and writer Paul Abbott build up such terrific energy as each side is given weight. This is not just a journalistic procedural film (though it excels at that), but the politician played by Morrissey is involved with high stakes energy committees in the government, and if recent movies have taught me anything, its that the corporations are the ultimate evil. Constantly shifting back and forth between the propulsive investigative tactics of the journalists and the social/political collapse of Morrissey
as more of the truth emerges about the relationship with his dead assistant, "State of Play" renders the whole event as a multi-faceted sequence of events. Basically, it gets its hooks in you pretty quickly. If you're a fan of this type of thing, then "State of Play" will knock your socks off.

Thanks to Anne Thompson at her blog for alerting me to the greatness of this series.

Friday, April 18, 2008

2008 Version of the Bad News Bears?

It's nowhere near as dire as my title suggests, but the '08 baseball season so far has yielded little excitement for Texas Rangers fans. As I write this, I"m watching the Red Sox put a pounding on them 9-3. And with three more games in the series, dare I say a sweep? With a 7-9 record (or about to be 7-10) there's still some hope, and there are surprise stars so far this season, namely young sprite David Murphy. And Josh Hamilton is paying off. And Padillo pitched a hell of a game last night beating Roy Halladay. But, overall, the basics just aren't there for the Rangers. They're making some atrocious fielding errors and can't quite come up with that timely hit (hitting .183 with runners in scoring position.. ouch). I can count at least 3 games that would've been W's if the fielding was there- yes I'm lookin at you Marlon Byrd.

Around the league, a few surprises so far. The Marlins are getting it done with some great young talent. The White Sox and Roylas have pretty much turned the AL central upside down, and The Diamondbacks 11-4? Interesting. Still, it's a long season. And boy do I love baseball. Even with the Stars hoping to make it out of the first round against the Anaheim Ducks (hockey? please.. give me a break) and the Mavericks poised for another playoff collapse (basketball.. ehh really don't care and these playoffs runs for what, 2-3 months? ridiculous), my mind is strictly focused on the diamond. I love this time of year.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Discovering The American Cinema

This post is a contribution to the blogathon at Film At 11 blog, dedicated to the anniversary of the publication of Andrew Sarris' seminal film book, The American Cinema.

When my interest in film seriously bloomed, it belonged to the days of going to the library and riffling through the racks, checking out books and discovering new passions at every turn of the page. Writings such as Stanley Kaufman's "World On Film", or selected essays by Pauline Kael, or J. Hoberman's seminal "Vulgar Modernism", or the National Society of Film Critic's series "Film 67/68" and "Film 68/69"- all of these books drew me closer (and sometimes farther away when I couldn't find a particular movie I desperately wanted to see based on the writings) to understanding the filmmaker behind the films. Here I was, a teenager in the early 90's digging back into the past when I should've been enjoying the latest "Terminator 2" or "Jurassic Park". I did like those, but my fervor existed solely in the past as I discovered Godard and the French New Wave, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, John Casavettes and counter-culture classics like "Easy Rider". If we don't know where we came from, how can we enjoy the present? And then I stumbled across Andrew Sarris and his book "The American Cinema". Here, finally, was a book that enveloped the same passion I was feeling by watching all these grand cinematic statements from the past. Also, the almost maniacal manner of categorizing and listing that Sarris utilized appealed directly to my own insatiable appetite for list-making. What "The American Cinema" did for me was provide knowledge that it WAS important to see "Persona" or "Breathless" or "The 400 Blows", but it was even more important to place these masterworks within a larger frame. It wasn't enough to see just those films, but then to watch ALL Truffaut, ALL Godard and certainly all Casavettes to decipher the fingerprint of the director over each film. "The American Cinema" opened up the possibility to me that there was someone greater behind the camera and his thoughts opened up a whole new discussion about "bodies of work"- an ideal that seems inherent in modern cinema. I quickly learned that the visual or emotional miracle of a film wasn't found in one principle work, but they manifested themselves, equally, over and over again through the course of several years. It didn't matter whether I was viewing a watershed film event of a director's career or a one-off B movie made before that director became famous. If you looked hard enough, the miracles were everywhere. Sarris understood that process of miracles and "The American Cinema" was his documentation of those miracles. And without that documentation, I don't know if I would love film quite as much as I do today. It gave me permission to choose favorites as well as introducing me to the term "auteur". And is there, really, a more foundational approach to cinema than that?

After discovering "The American Cinema" and once the internet consumed our every waking moment, Andrew Sarris was the first critic I read online weekly (with Ebert a very close second). The spirit of auteurism has never strayed far from Sarris' cinematic outlook. While my tastes in film weren't always compatible with his point of view (his preference for more Merchant Ivory fare, for example), I received immense joy from the graciousness of his reviews. I don't think any other film critic has the air of respect shown by Sarris in his writings, continually referring to each actor, director, writer or producer as Mr. and Mrs. throughout his pieces. And while he can certainly lash out vindictivly towards a film he deems of lesser value or social importance, his eye and ear are still close to the pulse of pop culture.. despite his age. He often found value in flashy efforts such as "Running Scared" (yes, that Paul Walker vehicle with a nasty ice rink showdown), "Run Lola Run"... or reveled in the profane, nihilistic portrayal of Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa", his number 2 fav film of 2003- all of this while maintaining equal admiration for "Pride and Prejudice" and the entire career of Eric Rohmer.

Yet even though Sarris penned the ultimate statement on directors, there was always room for re-assessment as he reflected on older films, saw new films by old masters and recognized the brilliance of fresh faces. While some directors were sentenced to irrational pigeon-holing within his book as "Strained Seriousness" or "Lightly Likeable" and couldn't be erased in 1968, Sarris had no problem in adjusting and admitting a mistake in later print reviews. At the very least, "The American Cinema" should be regarded as a revisionist text in the finest sense, ripe for re-discovery today by any film lover struggling to understand the transient space between past filmmaking and modern artistry. And, for a writer who wallowed in categorization, Andrew Sarris certainly defies categorization today.

To see Andrew Sarris' "Best Of" lists from 1958 to the present, check here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Second String Actors: John Ortiz

Part of my appreciation for Michael Mann's vastly underrated 2006 film, "Miami Vice", lies in the realization of just how sleazy and 'bad' the villains looked and felt. Mann is certainly no stranger to populating his films with talented supporting parts, but there was something different about the performance of John Ortiz as Jose Yero. I couldn't quite place him, but there was an intense fire burning beneath his scruffy face and greasy hair. One truly feared this guy. And then it hit me. That same guy had been the sweet, respectful police officer named Ruben in Denis Leary and Peter Toland's "The Job" in 2000-2001. Now, I'm a huge fan of Leary and Toland's "Rescue Me", but "The Job" is even better because it laid the groundwork for the inspired comedy in "Rescue Me". Instead of tracking the lives of NYC firefighters, "The Job" documented the lives of NYC cops with the same profane, jocular attitude. And right there in the middle of it all was Ortiz as Ruben, the innocent detective taking most of the crap from Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke (Uncle Teddy in "Rescue Me") and Diane Farr.

Bouncing from television work to feature length films for the past 10 years, Ortiz has yet to make an indelible impression on the movie-going audience. If anything, he's been typecast as the 'greaseball'. Who could forget his scene stealing performance in Joe Carnahan's "Narc", where he plays a fried junkie who gets to interact with Jason Patric and Ray Liotta in the nude after he burns his girlfriend's hair off in a domestic dispute (a scene that's mostly grotesque for its level of bottomed-out filth, but ends on a possibly improvised humorous moment when he shouts out to his girlfriend being carried away on a stretcher "you fucking bitch... ohh baby I love you!"

Ortiz made a large splash last year with his supporting turn as Javier, Russell Crowe's partner who makes a less than glamorous exit from the three hour film early on (again, due to his character's reliance on drugs). But there are softer, brighter sides to Ortiz's career which began in 1993 in a small role in "Carlito's Way", a film that seems to have featured a large array of great character actors today (Luiz Guzman etc.) In "Take the Lead" he stars opposite Antonio Banderas as teachers trying to teach inner city kids dance, and as Willi Colon in "El Cantante", he supports a drug-addled Marc Anthony as his trombonist. And genre is clearly not a problem, as Ortiz stepped into the action film "Aliens Vs. Predators- Requiem", which, I'm sorry... I can't bring myself to watch just yet. Still, I feel like there's a whole side to Ortiz we haven't seen yet. In 2008, he's scheduled to appear in 2 films including the long delayed Gavin O' Connor film "Pride and Glory" starring Ed Norton and Colin Farrell, James Gray's "Two Lovers" as well as being attached to the Oliver Stone film "Pinkville".

I keep expecting Ortiz to break out from the second string acting tier eventually. He has the talent, he certainly has the face, and he's overdue.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Top 5 (or maybe more): The Heist Flick

Sometimes, the most unassuming films sneak up on us and linger in our memory. That's happened to me with February's excellent "The Bank Job", a heist film that succeeds in today's modern market of louder/faster/and more bodies cinema, but with a distinctively traditional approach. The body count is low, the action is measured, and the suspense is palpable. I appreciate that. "The Bank Job" also rekindled my interest in my favorite genre- the 'heist picture'. The heist picture is not limited to jewelry store hold ups or bank robberies. You've got train robberies- most memorable in "The Taking of Pelham 123" or "The Great Train Robbery" or even to a lesser degree John Frankenheimer's brilliant Nazi loot train robbery film "The Train"- and you've got hell on wheels pics such as "The Driver", "The Italian Job" and "The Getaway" which appeals to the motor heads in all of us. Then there are the comedies- "The Hot Rock", "Oceans 11" and "The Pink Panther".... and trust me all three of those just mentioned succeed in varying degress, but I mention them anyway.

So what are my favorite heist pics? And yours? In order of preference:

1. Heat- Yea, it's only a dozen years old, but Michael Mann's crime picture is so full of details, that it stands as the be-all end-all when it comes to smart, crisp heist narratives. And not only do we get perfectly realized emotions and motives from the robbers, but the cops are just as sharply realized. This film should stand for ages.

2. The Killing- I have to go back to the decade that started it all with the heist picture here. Whether it was America's booming economic freedom or the over active imagination of artists dying to rebel against the establishment and McCarthyism, the 50's hold up pretty damn well. The heist picture grew smart. We're (often) given half the film's running time just for meticulous planning of the robbery... and THEN the actual robbery. Plus, the perverse idea that everyone is doomed in the end, culled from film noir, wormed its way into the genre and things would never look quite as optimistic again. "The Killing" has all of this in spades.. and the ending still shocks today.

3. The Asphalt Jungle- More proof of the 50's as heist king. Even moreso than Kubrick's "The Killing" this is all about preparation, and it's startling. Black and white never looked so good on rain-soaked streets.

4. The Anderson Tapes- I recently wrote about Lumet's film here. A true unheralded gem not available on DVD.

5. Rififi- While Jules Dassin made some great films, my fav remains this jewelry heist masterpiece. Mostly lauded for its wordless 29 minute set piece of the actual robbery, its praise is well deserved. If you didn't know any better, this plays like a long lost Jean Pierre Melville film.

6. La Cercle Rouge and Un Flic- And speaking of Melville, both of these films reek of mood and tempo like only Melville could produce. Strangely enough, their both color films. Nothing aginst earlier B&W work like "Le Doulos" and "Bob Le Flambeur", but "The Red Circle" and "A Cop" are like abstract heist films. Little dialogue, careful compositions and characters that are dead ringers while dressed in trenchcoats and hats, they can be confusing at times for the way they closet everything up. But the suffocating mood only adds to the suspense as it causes the viewer to routinely second guess each person's motives. It's like a chess game on film. And when the downfall does come, it's just as brutal.

I could go on for hours. If you haven't already, catch "The Bank Job" before it leaves theaters. You'll be thoroughly surprised. And if you haven't seen at least 1 of the films on this list, throw me a friggin bone and Netflix it now.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Round Up of Recently Seen

Stop Loss

Kimberly Pierce's "Stop Loss" features a bright young cast going through the motions of excruciating drama against the ubiquitous backdrop of the Iraq war. This time, like Paul Haggis' much more nuanced "In the Valley of Elah", the conflict is confined to the post traumatic stress suffered by the soldiers at home after their tour of duty. In addition to that, one of the soldiers, played by Ryan Philippe, is ordered back to Iraq through a policy known as stop-loss. With the help of his best friend's fiance (Abbie Cornish), Phillippe takes it on the lamb, seeking a way out of his forced return to Iraq. As the film's first 10 minutes sums up, Iraq is a bad place and war is hell. Not only does this give motivation to Phillipe not to return, but it mines the same territory of every other war film since "All Quiet On the Western Front".

Several problems exist with Pierce's overly earnest film- not only are the group of young soldiers (rounded out by Channing Tatum and Joseph-Gordon Levitt) from Texas, but Piece makes sure we know that by their incessant drinking, exaggerated southern draw, idle times spent shootin' at shit in the woods and two-step dancing. Things don't get much better when the action turns psychological, morphing Phillippe into a man who flashbacks to terrible times in Iraq as he's hunting down the thugs who broke into his car while stopped in Memphis. Every single frame of "Stop Loss" oozes with a sledgehammer approach. Not only is Pierce's view of Texas antiquated and cliche, but her obvious anti-war sentiments are clumsy. And wow... Abbie Cornish. She must be the out-of-wedlock, long lost daughter to Charlize Theron. Even though the star power in "Stop Loss" is high, Pierce's leaden manner of storytelling and characterization is just as ugly and amateurish as DePalma's "Redacted".

Shine A Light

It only seems natural that Scorsese, who's walled the images of his films with so many Stones tunes, would team up with these godfathers of rock and roll to bash out an entertaining concert film. Filmed in late 2006 when the Rolling Stones played a fundraising gig at New York's Beacon Theater, "Shine A Light" is a pretty bare bones rock and roll presentation. In between the full set numbers we're given cuts of newsreel footage as the young Stones ruminate on age and length of their superstar ride, then immediately brought back into the action of the 60-ish guys strutting their stuff. If nothing else, Scorsese's concert doc is cannily edited. But what really exudes throughout the film is the sheer joy of making music, expressed in the world-weary face of Keith Richards as he jams with an equally glee-eyed Buddy Guy or Christina Aguilara belting out a pretty bad ass duet with Jagger. While "Shine A Light" isn't as polarizing or tough a subject as "Gimme Shelter" (which stands as one the best documentaries ever) or as intriguing as Godard's observation on the creation of artistic collaboration in "One Plus One/Sympathy For the Devil", Scorsese's film wins out with clear eyed electricity.

Summer Palace

If you haven't seen the 3 films of Chinese director Le You, I urge you to run out and rent them now. But his first 2 films, "Suzhou River" and "Purple Butterfly", pale in comparison to the operatic and sprawling "Summer Palace", just released on DVD after a minimal theatrical run in late January. You has taken the backdrop of Beijing in the late 80's to weave a touching and epic story of 4 college students coming of age and extending over several years as they grow apart, come together, and dissolve into the malaise of their country in heartbreaking ways. It's a masterpiece, kin to the grand yet intimate storytelling prowess of Zhang Yimou (specifically "To Live") but infused with a heavy dose of nouvelle vague. See it at all costs.


I love the extreme sport documentaries, and Mark Obenhaus' "Steep" is a fine example . Taking his cue from legendary documentaries such as "Endless Summer", Obenhaus' camera never loses sight of the human element even when the looming landscape threatens to overtake the simple narrative of his extreme skiing story. Chronicling the beginning of mountain skiing and tracking its progression across several continents and diverse personalities, "Steep" is an awe-inspiring look at the mavericks who bucked traditional skiing in resorts with rules, pre-ordained routes and ski patrol, and ventured out into the wild country of the French Alps or the Montana mountain ranges to create a unique style of sport. Blending personal testimony with aerial footage, "Steep" introduces us to a wide array of men and women who make us believe there's something not so crazy about skiing over jagged rocks and 50 degree inclines. This is an enthralling and highly enjoyable documentary.

Lust, Caution

I regret not seeing Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" in the theater last year as it would've certainly popped up very high in my favorites of the year list. As a filmmaker, Lee has no real distinct visual style, but the way he effortlessly snakes in and out of so many genres certainly endears him to 'master' status among today's artists. This time its 1940's Shanghai as resistance fighter Wong (Wei Tang) is charged with infiltrating the home (and sexual appetite) of army big-wig occupier played by Tony Leung. Part spy-thriller and part "Last Tango In Paris" (which duly got the film slapped with an NC-17 rating), "Lust, Caution" is an ambitious and carefully modulated film. There are so many complex levels here at work- sexual politics against personal politics, the regretful glances of Wong (especially when she asks one of her resistance partners why he waited 3 years to kiss her now) and the slow erosion of one's culture. I know some of this has been done many times before, but it doesn't look quite as good or feel quite as heartbreaking as it does here in "Lust, Caution". I continually look forward to whatever Ang Lee does next.

Friday, April 04, 2008

70's Bonanza- The Day of the Jackal

"Hey, let's go see that new Bruce Willis movie that's based on some long-lost 70's flick!" That's the most recognition given to 1973's "The Day of the Jackal" in the last twelve years or so. Sad, partly because 1997's modern re-working, titled "The Jackal", is such an awful effort and also because Fred Zinneman's original is so good. It deserves much better- a political thriller that intrigues, a police procedural that's smart, and an all around breathless pace that ignites from the film's opening scenes. It's to the film's credit that, even though the history of General de Gaulle's life was already written, "The Day of the Jackal" still manages to mount surprising tension out of it's fact/fiction blending of real and imaginary people.

A classic cat and mouse game in the finest sense of the genre, the film pits Edward Fox as the invisible assassin against Michel Lonsdale's determined police lieutenant charged with finding and stopping the hired gun nick-named The Jackal. While the film places the Jackal in the sights of his target for a relatively few brief moments, the majority of its plot details the intelligent maneuvers of killer to sneak into the country (then stay there), while police doggedly track his every move (numerous passport changes, hair colorings and car switches).It's all handled in grand fashion as Zinneman highlights dialogue and logistics over dynamic action and visual flair (which causes some people to hail the film as boring). Like all the best "procedural" films which I"m a sucker for, "The Day of the Jackal" excels in its intelligence rather than flash. Both sides- police and assassin- are shown in almost ritualistic manners. The quiet determination that each party exudes, whether its the Jackal haggling over the price of a falsified passport or the detective's orderly round table meetings with the political cabinet, is given equal weight. One can sense if either one (good or bad) screws up even one iota, then the whole carefully orchestrated house of cards will fold in on itself.

Then there's the performances of Edward Fox and Lonsdale, both seemingly crafted from the same cloth. As the cool assassin, Fox is dapper and calculating. Lonsdale, pulling off another performance where he seems to melt into the fabric of the film, is organized and focused. And thinking back on his role in "Munich", is there a cooler father-son on screen duo than Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric? I'm not sure how well this film has retained its reputation today, but it definitely deserves another shot from cinephiles.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Music Alert! Counting Crows

The Counting Crows, that dreaded 90's wuss-rock band, released a new album last week and I'm digging it. I never understood the lack of passion for these guys. Not only do they create some of the best music ever that you can just drive to, but Adam Duritz's lyrics are penetrating and thoughtful. "Round Here" is one of my favorite songs, and while their latest, titled "Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings", doesn't feature the knockout of either that song or "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" from the mid 90's, it's an album that reminds me just how great this band is. And staying true to the album's title, the first half is up tempo and even rivals some of the early 90's grunge sound of Pearl Jam (as evidenced by the above featured You Tube track "1492") while the second half mellows out a bit. Neither half is better than the other, both styles of music complimenting the diverse talent and songwriting prowess of the band. If you're a fan, pick it up.