Saturday, May 31, 2008

Top 5 (Plus 5)- Cannes Winners

Now that France has claimed the Palme d'Or on its home turf for the first time in 20+ years with director Laurent Cantet and his new film, its back to basics for so many Cannes dwellers. In honor of Cantet's (relatively) unheard of film, here are my choices for the best films bestowed this prestigious award through the years.

1. Taxi Driver (1976)- Scorsese's bullet valentine to New York was awarded the prize and along with several Coppola wins in the same decade, Cannes was poising itself to fully recognize the movie brats of the 70's.

2. Paris, Texas (1984)- Wim Wenders' amazing road movie (before he began making pretty stale road movies) gets everything right. From the vast expanses of West Texas to the claustrophobic, industrialized wastelands of inner city Houston, it captures the endlessly evolving landscape of Texas with an understanding gaze. The final conversation between Stanton and Kinski (running close to 20 minutes) packs an emotional wallop as well. Rightly deserved Palme d'Or.

3. The Third Man (1949)- Carol Reed's classic was given the top prize when it was called the "grand prix du festival". Even after 50+ years, "The Third Man" still outclasses alot of films in mood, expressionistic lighting and character development. And what an entrance for Orson Welles in this one.

4. Apocalypse Now (1979)- Just watched this again over the weekend and it hypnotizes me every time. This is extravagant filmmaking, espousing a completely personal view and creating some of the most stark images you'll ever see. The cast is perfect, the mood is perfectly maniacal, and its an extremely potent take on the Vietnam War. Even more interesting is how the film itself took on the bloated excess of the war, human casualties (heart attack) and all.

5. Underground (1995)- Emir Kusturica, a favorite filmmaker of mine, has disappeared from the scene but in 1995, he made "Underground", a film just as lengthy and thematically dense as Coppola's version of the war. This one splinters itself in two parts surrounding a large Yugoslavian family. There's plenty of drunkenness, sexual intercourse and satirical war wipes, and the whole thing threatens to spin out of control. It's to Kusturica's credit that he somehow holds the thing together and ends up creating a comedy for the ages.

6. Wages of Fear (1953)- Henri George Clouzot's sweat-inducing masterpiece follows a group of thugs and lowlifes as they drive a truck full of nitre glycerin through a rain forest. I've tried on several occasions to get through the hugely boring Friedkin remake ("Sorcerer") and can't... which only proves how well the original holds up. This is a white knuckle thriller with sardonic undertones.

7. La Dolce Vita (1960)- One of the first Fellini films I saw, this is yet another sprawling effort that Cannes chose to award for its full embrace of a city, its culture, and the various denizens. Simply magical filmmaking that's been begged, borrowed and stolen from over the past 4 decades.

8. Blow Up (1966)- My favorite Antonioni. While I certainly dig the austere, existential films like "L'Eclipse" or "L'Avventura", this one is probably his most mainstream. While capturing the lurid feel of swinging 60's London, its also a slow-burn thriller that follows a photographer who may or may not have captured a murder on his camera.

9. Wild At Heart (1991)- It takes balls to don the prestigious award on a film as lurid and offbeat as Lynch's film, but it's also a damn fine effort and proof that the Cannes jurors can sometimes trust their instincts when they see a truly original piece of work.

10. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007)- Perhaps its too early to tell and maybe this spot should have gone to Coppola's "The Conversation", but personally, I find this film to be a breathtaking example of political filmmaking. Loach's best film in years tracks the complicated and bloody origins of the IRA with clear-eyed performances and sumptuous cinematography. One of last year's very best films. Time will put the proper perspective on it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

John From Cincinnati

With the exception of David Mamet, I can't think of another writer who makes the profane sound so poetic. But instead of long rambling dialogue pieces that supports the classically old world 19th century view of the South Dakota denizens of "Deadwood", series creator David Milch has transferred the vulgar to modern day California- and more specifically to the rag-tag surfing culture that inhabit a small tract of beach front property known as Imperial Beach. Blending adept humor, mysticism, ensemble melodramatics and some downright 'out there' plot strands, "John From Cincinnati" is a unique viewing experience. Even when I had no idea where the thing was headed, it kept me embroiled in whatever direction it chose to take. With today's cluttered TV schedule and the overwhelming pressure to create a knockout series after the first episode, that alone is reason enough to celebrate this genre-bending effort from Milch.

With over half the cast from "Deadwood" making a re-appearance in "John From Cincinnati", the ambitious narrative follows the ramifications and drama that ensue when an otherworldly man named John (Austin Nichols) shows up in the beach community of I.B. Home to a family of washed out ex-competition surfers led by elder figure Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood), his nervous and jittery wife Cissy (a wonderful Rebecca DeMornay) and their grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher) who also happens to be the next great thing in a long family line of great water athletes, strange occurrences begin happening. Mitch levitates a foot off the ground for no reason. Shaun makes a remarkable recovery after a particularly vicious surfing accident. Shaun's father, Butchie (Brian Van Holt) who gave him up to his parents as a baby and retreated into a life of heroin addiction after his own surfing career came crashing down, doesn't feel the need to cop anymore when John's around. Birds kept as pets by neighbor Bill (Ed O' Neill) take on telepathic abilities and breathe life back into dead people. There's also a stable of hanger-ons, motel dwellers, doctors and girlfriends that pay witness to the many miracles that seem to happening in Imperial Beach, some of them turning into 'vision-seers' themselves. Basically, there's alot of weird shit going down in I.B. Added to the mixture of supernatural calamity is Link Stark (Luke Perry), a surfing corporation owner who desperately wants to sign young Shaun Yost to his label and whose presence stirs up feelings of regret, greed and maternal instincts due to his past experiences with the Yost family.

There are many more characters floating around the periphery of the minimal settings (run down motel, surf shop, the Yost home and the white sands along the beach) and each one adds dimension and energy to the proceedings. There's a transplanted drug dealer (Dayton Callie aka Charlie Utter in "Deadwood") and his dim witted strong arm Palaka (Paul Ben Victor) who transform into guardian angels of sorts. There's a doctor (Garrett Dillahunt), who becomes personally involved with the Yost family after his witnessing of a miracle and becomes the voice of intelligent reason. Everyone begins to revolve around young Shaun Yost, whose unimposing 14 year old surfer character acts as the catalyst that brings everyone together. Is John an angel? An alien? The series never really makes that clear, but it's his character that proves the most confusing. He's stabbed several times throughout the ten episodes (and never dies), seems 'programmed' to only speak and parrot whatever is said to him, and holds enigmatic spells over people, such as Cass (Emily Rose). Her relationship with John leads her to lock herself up in her hotel room and obsessively review video shot on her video camera. I could go on, but the show continues to play with logic and expectations. The more I type, the more I may alienate new viewers who might shy away from the unconventional approach. "John From Cincinnati" is certainly a singular vision, free of expected series development and traditional plotting. It's not quite "Twin Peaks", but let's call it a distant cousin.

Excluding the show's weird charm, it's also wildly funny. Rebecca de Mronay as Cissy, the chain-smoking, worrisome grandmother (who still looks incredible) delivers more balled up fury than a chained tiger, most of the time at her zen-like husband, Mitch (Greenwood). A welcome return to form is Ed O' Neill who plays the retired ex-cop neighbor to the Yost family- he's a man grappling with life after a long career and the loss of his wife who still thinks he can pick up the phone and call the young guys on the force for help. His recurring grimace and "jesus christ.. jesus christ" disgust with everything modern suggests that Al Bundy is not far removed from the proceedings. Aside from the humor, there's something compulsively watchable about "John From Cincinnati". While it's tone is hard to nail down, there's the idea that something is going to happen even when very little does. Milch and co-created Kem Nunn have taken the fringes and corners of an idea and stretched them across nine hours. While it may not be required viewing for some, I found the corners and fringes of this dysfunctional sect of people utterly interesting.

When one gets down to it, the message of "John From Cincinnati" is relatively simple. It's there in the film's opening scene when John tells Mitch Yost "you should get back in the game Mitch Yost". In hindsight, he's not talking about surfing, but something much greater. Milch just takes some very weird twists and turns to get there. And those left field moves, ultimately, cancelled the show's future. As it stands now, we'll have to appreciate the show for what it is... a brilliant one-off that proves HBO can stretch it's wingspan, but audiences aren't always ready to close their eyes and make the jump. And as a replacement for HBO's "The Sopranos", airing one week after the finale of that show's grandstanding run, where else was there to go but down?

Bonus: the extremely catchy opening title sequence, courtesy of Joe Strummer.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On the Debacle That Is Indiana Jones

I'll try and keep this above the line, but it may be hard. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is terrible.. a disgrace to the franchise... and the epitome of everything that is wrong about special effects-laden spectacles that have insinuated themselves into the culture of modern filmmaking.

Right from the opening scene, the artificiality of the film's overwhelming CGI effects removed me the experience. For God's sake, this is a scene in the desert in front of a warehouse and instead of feeling or even looking real, Speilberg chooses to shoot the whole thing against a blue screen. Is it too much to ask for a film crew to actually go on location in front of a warehouse (or hell, build a set!) and do filming? From there, the artificiality of "Indiana Jones" grows exponentially, placing us (unbelievably) inside an Amazon rain forest where a sword fight occurs on two jeeps (complete with cutesy humor where plant shrubs whack Shia Lebouf in the groin) that never once feels dangerous. Then we're given an episode where giant ants carry off a soldier into their pit. And on, and on, and on... each set-piece growing larger and more uninteresting due to the fakeness of their creation. The days of location shooting, which created such a great atmosphere in the first 3 Indiana Jones films, have been replaced by digital technology that continually usurps human drama, craving the attention of "bigger and bolder" while minimizing any tension between real people. I hate it. I hate the direction that modern Hollywood blockbusters are going. I hate that we can no longer trust our eyes about the images being displayed on the screen before us. For all I know, one scene in a 50's cafe between Lebouf and haggard 65 year old Harrison Ford (who looks and feels just as disingenuous as the entire film) didn't include anyone but Ford and Lebouf and everyone else was digitized. When we remove living, breathing people from the experience, we're left with empty, soulless images. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is certainly soulless.

Beyond the overall artificiality, this is a film made for 4 year olds. Now granted, the kid in me always appreciated the attempts at humor in the first 3 films, but here we're exposed to some sort of "Caddyshack" gopher observing the opening set-piece, cute flying monkeys that help Lebouf swing like Tarzan through the rain forest, and quirky one-liners that serve as nothing more than to draw in the uninterested, casual movie goer who tags along for 'dumb-downed' commercial appeal. It's sickening, cringe-worthy and yet another example of the wayward intentions of Lucas and Spielberg to cash in on a franchise that is bankrupt on new ideas, existing only to transform a nice series of films into yet another over-produced, digitized lie that'll do 400 million dollars. This is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Now, did I manage to stay above the line? Probably not.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Appreciation: Sidney Lumet

After seeing last year's remarkably accomplished "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" by 83 year old filmmaker Sidney Lumet, I decide to conduct a comprehensive viewing of his lengthy and storied career. This is easier said than done. Eight films are not available in any form. A handful of others exist only in worn out VHS tapes and then the rest can be picked through on DVD. I did the best I could, driven by some weird cinematic OCD inside me, to track down as many as I could. Some were found on Amazon and many more were dispersed throughout local video stores. All told, I was able to eventually see 36 of his 44 films over the course of his 52 year love affair with filmmaking. Prolific yes, but Lumet is also an auteur... a director whose theater background clearly establishes itself through so many of his works. And while his output is decidely mixed (some really great and some really bad) I don't regret the time and energy spent over the past 7 months slowly accumulating a new Lumet film here and there. Part of the joy is in the hunt. Below is an overview of Lumet's films, categorized by year, applied with a star rating and brief critique. It feels kinda nice to (almost) complete this self-prescribed experience. But then what of the 8 films I haven't been able to see? That's another experience altoghether I suppose. Hopefully, the Lumet retrospective held at New York's Film Forum in February will provide the motivation for producing these works to a mass audience. And no, as compulsive as I am, the idea of flying to New York to view these films was not an option.

Updated 03/17/2015

Stage Struck ***- From its opening shot- a slow pan across downtown New York and Broadway, landing on the wide-eyed face of Susan Strasburg- this tells you everything one needs to know about what makes Lumet breathe as a director. The story, about a selfish and unrelenting young girl's push to be a Broadway star, is sentimental and sloppy at times, but Henry Fonda (as heavy producer) commands the screen. Strasburg is simply gorgeous at times as well. A nice debut.

12 Angry Men ***1/2- Well deserved classic status has been appointed to Lumet's sophomore effort. Even after all these year's, its still a smart and engaging tele-play that ratchets up the verbal tension economically.

The Fugitive Kind **- Marlon Brando does his moody schtick as "Snakeskin", a guitar playing drifter who upsets a small Louisiana town upon arrival. Lumet's play and TV work is still highly visible, but one can feel him beginning to stretch out in multiple settings and ensemble cast direction. Watchable, but not on par with the rest of his early work.

Long Day's Journey Into Night ***- The prototypical 'actors' film, handled with delicacy and no-frills direction.

A View From the Bridge ***- Features a terrific economy of images, including a hand up a skirt and two immigrants being handcuffed in front of a Santa Clause decoration. Based on Arthur Miller's play- and it feels stagey at times- but the feirce emotion comes to a boil at the end.

Fail Safe **1/2- The most memorable items from this paranoid cold war thriller is its disconcerting opening title sequence (where the title card suddenly flashes on screen in vivid black and white) and final images cut to black. While it's hard to not dislike anything about Lumet's tense, cold-sweat inducing close-ups and erratic editing style, its very hard to take this film seriously when you synchronize it in your mind with "Dr Strangelove".

The Pawnbroker **1/2- Part 60's social message and part European art film, it feels muddled and constipated. Rod Steiger is impressive as the solemn Holocaust survivor finally exploding after a few volatile days in modern Harlem where he owns a pawn shop, but so much of the psychology is obfuscated. I wanted to like it more than I did.

The Hill ***- Placed inside a military prison camp, the theater aspect of 2 settings is palpable. It was the beginning of a string of films Lumet made with Sean Connery and his sense of camera placement and inner psychology is riveting. Even after 10 years though, one can still sense the anchoring of Lumet's stage days.

The Deadly Affair **- Oh, probably the biggest disappointment on this list. After spending years tracking this one down, TCM goes and decides to play it last month. Sadly, the effort to see this film was more entertaining than the film itself. As drab and lifeless as the dreary Britain settings, Mason and cohorts mumble and politely sleepwalk through this film. Instead of crackling with intrigue, it fizzles out long before its climax.

The Group **- Bordering on soap opera, this ensemble film follows the ups and downs of eight graduated Vasser women as they make their way in high society from 1933 until the early 40's. Marriage, infidelity, breastfeeding, gossip... all the tropes of the women's melodrama are here and played to the hilt. The mechanics and look of the film are good, but the stories are a crushing bore. It is nice to see a young Julie Walters ("Arrested Development") though. Not on DVD.

Updated 9/15/10
Bye Bye Braverman **- One of the disappointments as it's been one I've been tracking down for years. Four men meet and travel across New York to pay respects to their dead friend. It's all very "new yawkish" and doesn't always translate well from its stage origins.

The Seagull **- Sadly, a very dull actor's film adapting an Anton Chekov play as a large family stages a weekend alongside a Swedish vacation home. The pedigree of the actors is strong, and Lumet is clearly reveling his stage days, but it unsatisfactorily translates to the screen as necessary viewing.

The Appointment ***1/2 - With its European financing and production, "The Appointment" feels like a transition period for Lumet. Gone are the stagey 1960's, opting for a more lush and cinematic approach. In fact, certain parts of this film mimic the works of Visconti or Antonioni.... and in a good way. Omar Sharif is a confused man to say the least. He meets, falls in love with and then steals beautiful model Anouk Aimee away from her fiancee and then spends the rest of the film destroying that relationship when he hears a rumor she may be a high class prostitute. Echoes of Russian literature blended with European art-film techniques carry the mystery a long way, none moreso vivid (or terrifying) than in one very long pan up from a field as the couple make love or the long pan down a hallway as Sharif walks away and two nuns go scurrying by. A forgotten, but very good entry in Lumet's career. Not available on DVD

Last of the Mobile Hot Shots *- Another Tennessee Williams adaptation, this one pits James Coburn, Robert Hooks and Lynn Redgrave in a large Louisiana farmhouse and has them shriek away at each other for two hours over the property. Redgrave's performance is truly horrendous- shrill and off putting. The story moves at a snail's pace and there's no room for Lumet to open up the drama and create anything other than a claustrophobic chore to endure. Not on DVD.

The Anderson Tapes ****- Trend setting heist flick that rounds up the usual Lumet crew (Connery, Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken's first role) as a rag-tag bunch of recently released cons who plan to rob a wealthy apartment building. When I say this is trend setting, I mean it. This film sets the standard for all other capers after 1971 and it also pre-dates alot of the paranoid 70's thrillers such as "The Conversation" and "Three Days of the Condor" in the way it places cameras and audio/video surveillance as a menacing, intrusive character. The final half of the film, featuring the actual heist, finds Lumet at the top of his game in editing, sound and camera placement. One of the unheralded gems of the 70's and long overdue for a DVD release.

Child's Play (1972) **- Starts off very strong and eerily, with a Catholic school bearing witness to muted, violent acts carried out by the young boys there upon each other. From there, it becomes heavily muddled as the paranoia and evil spread to the moral battale between two teachers (James Mason and Robert Preston) with new teacher Beau Bridges stuck in the middle. This is one hard film to find, never shown on TV and never released on home video. Probably for Lumet completists only. Not available on DVD.

The Offence **1/2- Four sets (police interrogation rooms and apartment) detail the psychological breakdown of a veteran Scotland Yard detective (Connery) when they bring in a possible child molester subject. Lumet's stagey film and the title itself refer to several different offences, but Connery is riveting as the central character broken by years of unresolved homicides and deaths. Financed and filmed in England, there's a bit of his Euro posturing left as subliminal cuts and disjointed sound and image try to make the whole thing a little more interesting than it really is. Never released on DVD.

Serpico ***1/2- After Connery, Lumet found his new muse in the guise of young, frenetic Al Pacino. In their first collaboration together, "Serpico" begins to refine the theme of Lumet chiseling away at the complex beaurucracies that would become his agenda, on and off, for the next 6 or 7 years. Also the first film in his series on police corruption. As the title character, a cop who turns away from the bribery and corruption of New York blue, Pacino solidifies himself as the great new young actor of the 70's.

Lovin' Molly **- A love triangle blooms between two brothers (Beau Bridges and Anthony Perkins) and a girl (Blythe Danner) over 40 years in Lumet's attempt to adapt Larry McMurtry. The problem with this film is that Danner's performance does very little to incite the idea that so much passion and whoopla is deserved. With that aside, it's a nice looking picture going through the usual motions. Not on DVD.

Murder On the Orient Express *1/2- Stuffy and almost sleep-inducing star bonanza that probably felt revolutionary in its day, but tired now. The stuff of parody.

Dog Day Afternoon ***1/2- The second Lumet/Pacino effort, this one just as grimy and involving as "Serpico". The tables are turned though and the hero light is cast on Pacino as a bank robber. His various speeches to the Brooklyn masses outside the bank ("Attica! Attica!") have been looped endlessly as classic moments. Still, "Dog Day Afternoon" is a tense, expertly edited and photographed film that examines a bank robbery from all angles.

Network ****- Pointless to place more accolades on this film, but Paddy Chayefsky's script is electric, the acting is bravado and Lumet cuts everything close to the bone. The ultimate satire on television.

Equus *1/2- I imagine it's pretty hard coming down after the success of "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon", but "Equus" is truly the epitome of a career slump. His next three films are not good at all. Based on Peter Scahffer's dense, odd play about a boy obsessed with horses, Richard Burton gives an extrenely hammy performance as the psychiatrist crossing mental swords with the troubled boy. Lumet tries his best to energize the film with lengthy takes of monologues, circling long takes and inventive lateral pans, but his technical aesthetic is drowned by the story's puzzling character motivations.

The Wiz *1/2- Updated version of Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross? Yea, hard thing to get through.

Just Tell Me What You Want *1/2- Obnoxious portrait of the battle of the sexes, this time between Randolph Hearst-like mogul Alan King and free-spirited Ali McGraw. The characters are unremarkable, the screenplay tries way too hard to modernize the screwball comedy timing of the 30's and 40's and the direction and editing feel like a true hack job. To make matters worse, I suffered through this on a worn out VHS copy.

Prince of the City ****- Lumet's undeniable masterpiece both in acting (Treat Williams) and as a piercing character study of a decent cop drowning in a sea of police corruption and self-doubt by turning state's evidence for New York. At three hours, it whizzes by even though it's a detailed and complex deconstruction of an elaborate system of bribery and look-the-other-way-brotherhood. In short, its a masterwork, standing as one of the best of the decade.

The Verdict ****- Paul Newman at his finest as a washed up ambulance chasing lawyer given redemption. This is the court room drama done with economy and hard-hitting realism. Every person in this film exudes a strong believability, none moreso than Newman whose cantekerous personality undergoes a universal change. One of Lumet's very best, and a final scene that gets me everytime.

Deathtrap ***- I probably shouldn't like this as much as I did and the twists and turns portrayed by Michael Caine as an exasperated playwrite willing to commit murder for a best seller feels like parody (especailly after it has so much in common with Caine's other one-setting mystery a few years earlier called "Sleuth"), but there's something inherently watchable. Christopher Reeve shows up as the possible victim and Dyan Cannon shrieks her way across the screen. Go into this one cold, and it could be highly entertaining.

Daniel ***1/2- Fictional retelling of the Rosenbergs (here portrayed by Many Pantinkin and Lindsay Crouse as the Isaacsons) trial for espionage. The crux of this film is not in the procedural details of the trial itself (which would seem normal for Lumet), but the emotional devastation imprinted on the couple's two children over the course of three decades. Timothy Hutton is very good as the adult Daniel and his quest to find out the truth about his parents. There are some strong supporting performances from Ellen Barkin, Amanda Plummer and Ed Asner as well. A highly underappreciated Lumet film not on DVD.

Garbo Talks ***- Surprisingly effective 'weepie' starring Ron Silver as a desperate accountant trying to appease his mother's dying wish- for her to talk to reclusive film star Greta Garbo. I wasn't sure what to expect from this one, but Silver and Anne Bancroft turn in marvelous performances and the whole film has a nice whimsical feel to it. The long shot, with Bancroft spilling her guts on her deathbed, is a heartbreaking scene. Not on DVD.

The Morning After *- One of the very bad ones. Jane Fonda plays a drunken, over-the-hill actress who wakes up in the morning after a bender next to a dead man. Jeff Bridges is the ex-cop who falls for her and helps her unravel the mystery. The pacing is very uneven, the performances hokey and badly constructed, and the resolution just as clunky.

Power ***- One of the more interesting films about the inner mechanics of the campaign trail, "Power" stars Richard Gere as a political strategist running simultaneous campaigns around the U.S. If this type of thing bores you, then you probably won't find much to spark your interest, but Gere strides through confidently even if the whole thing amounts to less than meets the eye. I was expecting a grand finale, but instead it ends with a whimper. Still highly involving and, yes, I find the inner workings of the campaign trail quite fascinating.

Running On Empty ***1/2- Revisiting his pro-hippie slant of "Daniel", this story follows two war activists (Judd Hirsch and a wonderful Christine Lahti) as they run from the law fourteen years after bombing a napalm plant and accidentally maming a janitor. But the real burden of this crime lies on the shoulders of their young sons (the older of the two played to riveting perfection by River Phoenix). This is a film full of gentle relationships and warm, seemingly improvised moments such as a birthday party that morphs into singing and dance, all captured in observant long takes by Lumet. If nothing else, see this for the perfectly rendered friendship that forms between Phoenix and a young Martha Plimpton.

Family Business *1/2- Mob comedy (which felt so prevalent in the late 80's) that re-teams Lumet with Connery filling out a family of thieves (Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick). It walks an uneasy line of comedy and melodrama, and never achives the quaint charm of later mob comedies, such as his own "Find Me Guilty".

Q&A **- The third film in his police corruption trilogy, this one features Timothy Hutton chasing the wayward and illegal Nick Nolte. Hutton doesn't quite live up to the serious leading man role like Pacino and Williams before him, and the whole film feels seriously out of touch with race, gender and homosexuality. Plus there's an awfully contrived relationship between Hutton and the now-girlfriend of mob boss Amand Assante. Lumet does keep his track record of featuring a future "Sopranos" star though, this time its Uncle Jr. (Dominik Chianese) who played supporting roles in other Lumet ventures.

A Stranger Among Us **1/2- Nowhere near as bad as I was led to believe, Melanie Griffith is miscast as a cop who goes undercover to solve the murder of a diamond dealer in New York's Hassidic community but her performance, oddly, begins to make sense after awhile. Pure early 90's cheeze, but not terribly unwatchable. There's some sizzle between Griffith and Orthodox Jew Eric Thal and you have to give Lumet credit- he doesn't leave any nook of New York unnoticed. A very young (and slim) James Gandolfini even makes an appearance.

Guilty As Sin *1/2- Director Lumet certainly went through an artistic lull in the 90's, and this is another one of them. I'd forgotten just how sexy De Mornay is, and she exudes a certain charisma here, but the story (manipulating pretty boy Don Johnson sets up an elaborate judicial game of cat and mouse based on a possible murder) is handled with little flair or intelligence. Add to that a laughable, over-the-top finale and "Guilty As Sin" ranks as a true misfire.

Critical Care ***- James Spader is terrific in this dark comedy about a professional 'virgin' med student being exposed to the malicious and beauracratic devices of the medical field. For once, Lumet doesn't take the subject matter too seriously and manages to weave together a touching and humorous expose.

Night Falls on Manhatten **- The same contrivances that plagued "Q&A" (a clumsy relationship between two central characters and an uneven leading man) also threatens to sink any believability in this 1997 effort, which finds Andy Garcia rising to the ranks of New York's district attorney while fighting police corruption, which may or may not involve his father (Ian Holm) and partner (a wonderful James Gandolfini). With a script written by Lumet himself, it begins to soar when his script again tackles the vagaries of NY blue, but ultimately gets mired in too many inconsistencies and a leading performance from Garcia that feels as if he's in over his head.

Gloria *- Why did this need a remake? Pretty terrible on every level, and I paid full admission to see this turkey in the theater. Note to self, ANY Cassavettes remake cannot be good.

Find Me Guilty *** - Vin Diesel turns in a surprisly charming leading role, and it seems Lumet needs a nifty comedy every now and then to clean his palatte. Not to mention, this film is littered with great Italian faces and character actors.

Strip Search *1/2- Didactic and obvious. Yes, we all know we do bad things during times of war, but this short film about the confinement of two people (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Jacobsen) on seperate sides of the world adds nothing to the conversation.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead ****- "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a stunning return to form that feels like one of his early Tennessee Williams family-meltdown pot-boilers, complete with cheating wives, vain brothers and the nuclear family in complete disarray. Throw in a botched robbery, drug abuse and Marisa Tomei baring it all in virtually every scene she's in, and you've got a magnificent downer of a film that pulses with dread and defeatism.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008



Mamet's latest is a disappointment. Even though its treads familiar ground, the con-game and hermetic universe of shady double crosses doesn't quite survive this time, namely because it takes place in the world of ju-jitsu mixed martial arts. Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best as the stoic moral centerpiece, but it's hard to take Mamet seriously, especially after a clunky ending and several character twists that just don't make any sense. Tim Allen is ushered out this time as the older comedic actor attempting to transform his humorous image by turning mysterious (a role previously employed to greater perfection and achievement by Steve Martin in Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner") but he's left with very little to do and embodies a confusing motive to the multi-ensemble merry go round. I really wanted to like this one. It's definitely no "Spartan".

Adam's Apples

Luckily, a Danish film that's not related to the dogma aesthetic. Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, "Adam's Apples" is an absurdest comedy with a mean spirit and a black heart and definitely not for all tastes. Mads Mikkelsen is Ivan, a preacher at a remote church who takes in paroled convicts for rehabilitation stints. He finally meets his match with Neo Nazi Adam (Ulrich Thomsen), who quietly usurps Ivan's peaceful existence by rattling fellow ex-convicts at the church and instilling the belief that God doesn't like anybody. This films goes places that's hard to watch, but it (amazingly) generates acrid laughs. This is a film that ultimately has lots of faith in human beings, but it takes its sweet time in developing Adam as a malevolent force who, upon entering his room quickly tears a cross off the wall and replaces the worn out cross stain with a picture of Hitler. Later in the film, when Adam decides to read the Bible left in his room by Ivan, he does so by tossing the book on the floor four times and seeing it open up to the Book of Job all 4 times. Reminiscent of the religious absurdities in some of Bunuel's films, Jensen strikes a harrowing tone throughout "Adam's Apples". I'm looking forward to seeing more of Jensen's work. And the ending to this film is near perfect.

The Visitor

Tom McCarthy's "The Visitor" is an apt title in more ways than one. The lead character Walter, played to winning perfection by Richard Jenkins, is basically a visitor in his own life. Bored with teaching, unable to connect with his colleagues, and suffering through piano lessons in a naive way to stay attached to his departed wife, he travels to New York for a teacher's conference to find a Syrian man and Senegalese woman living in his sparsely visited apartment. That simple misunderstanding leads Walter to become an observer not only to their culture, but wrapped up in an immigration issue that gives his life a much needed spark. It's so nice to see great supporting actor Jenkins wrestle with a starring role. After turning in strong performances in a host of films like "North Country" (in which he deserved a supporting actor nom that year) and "The Man Who Wasn't There", he does it again here but on the LEAD actor scale, embodying Walter with nuance and a less-is-more attitude that cuts right through the screen. I wasn't a fan of McCarthy's previous film, "The Station Agent", which felt quirky and forced, but with "The Visitor", he's created a film full of life, redemption and subtle human interaction.

Youth Without Youth

Was it worth waiting over a dozen years for Coppola's latest? Not in my book. Relentlessly muddled and inherently preoccupied for capturing lush and beautiful images, in doing so Coppola has drained the life from the film. Tim Roth plays an elder scholar whose struck by lightning, finds a fountain of youth, becomes the target for experimental Nazi practices during World war 2, falls in love with the same girl twice, seeks some type of 'original' language and develops a split personality disorder that Coppola chooses to film like Brian DePalma in "Raising Cain". And even though there's all this plot going on, "Youth Without Youth" still feels turgid at 124 minutes.


The balance between good French horror films and bad is a razor-thin surface. What makes "Inside" or even the psychological horror masterpieces of Gaspar Noe so compelling is their underlying motivation to tell some kind of story or visualize some type of allegory. Xavier Gens' newest addition, "Frontier(s)" does neither. It's a nauseating, gory flick that sends 4 vulgar and obnoxiously shallow criminals fleeing Paris with a bag full of money. They stop at an inn run by former Nazi's (wow what is it about the Nazi theme in these reviewed films today?) who turn the tables on the criminals and begin to hack them up because, well you know, its what retired Nazis do. Gens is obviously a fan of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" with a little bit of the "The Descent" thrown in for good measure, but "Frontier(s)" first mistake is trying to create sympathy for such woefully repellent characters. It doesn't even matter that 1 of the criminals is a pregnant female. I couldn't care less who lives and who dies. Outside of horrible character development, the direction is just as shabby. Cue the jerky, sped-up handheld camera whenever the shit hits the fan, scream every line of dialogue and yell "run" every 3 seconds and that's supposed to substitute for tension? Avoid this at all costs. Gens should not be allowed behind a camera again.

And after this one, I don't even have the heart to pan "Diary of the Dead". I've seen enough crap over the past week.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I'm With the Band

I can now mark number 15 off my list of '25 Things To Do One day': see Radiohead live in concert. Finishing up the last date on the first leg of their '08 In Rainbows tour, I battled the traffic, minor heat and 20,000 plus sell out crowd last night to see the band in person for the first time here in Dallas. Miraculous. Simply miraculous event.. but then I expected nothing less. They took the stage with little pomp and circumstance and proceeded to tear through their set list with minor audience pandering and conversation, playing pretty much every song off their latest and dipping into the past with a strong selection from "Kid A" and "Amnesiac". The first half of the show highlighted mood over rowdy sound, displaying pitch perfect attention to songs like "Pyramid Song" and "Nude". Some people around us in the relatively youngish crowd were getting impatient it seemed (young bastards these days) but I lapped up every second, knowing that seeing the band for the first time in Texas since their 1998 "Ok Computer" tour would be Radiohead the way they wanted to play. Anyone who understands their temperance for performing live (including the moment when lead singer Thom Yorke called out an idiot in the crowd who ruined the perfectly hushed moment as the band performed "Exit Music, For a Film")certainly shouldn't expect a concert full of "Creep" and the 1 or 2 other songs to actually get FM airplay over the years. I'd definitely rank this as the best convert I've ever seen, but hell am I biased. Clips below. Take note of the absolutely riveting stage set-up as they had 36 huge clear pipes coming down from the ceiling that lit up and danced in colors with the music.

And then, they pulled out one of my favs from "Kid A", titled "Idioteque". Huge surprise.

Thanks for indulging me.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Noir Heart

There are many great novelists whose ragged prose lends itself eagerly to the noir genre. Not only do they create books and short stories that carry a nihilistic point of view of the world, but their characters are fatalistic to a fault. The most exhilarating aspect of the noir world to me is the way it places the viewer/reader into a dark environment with little or no bearings. We're forced to read between the lines, glean understanding of hardboiled-speak, and place our trust, primarily, within the eyes and ears of a single point of view. Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, James Cain and Raymond Chandler were the godfathers. James Elroy, and a writer named Richard Stark helped bridge the gap from classic noir to the modern era, tinging their tough guy novels with humor, pathos and unpredictability... essentially a blueprint for Hollywood to continually update (and profit from) the long standing noir genre.

Now, a secret about Richard Stark. There is no Richard Stark. This is the pseudonym for writer Donald Westlake. If one goes to IMDB and searches for Westlake, they'll come across a treasure trove of 60's/70's/80/s and 90's noirs that all originated from the novels by Westlake. Because of his pseudonym, is he the most under appreciated crime writer we have today? I would say so. From his imagination, the world has been given the framework for classic films such as "Point Blank" and underrated gems such as "The Outfit", "The Hot Rock" and "Hot Stuff" (yes the Dom Deluise pawn shop comedy). Still further, films like "The Split", "The Bank Shot" and Alain Cavalier's "The Score"(all, sadly not available on DVD and barely seen outside of rare TV screenings) were all released between the years of 1967 and 1975. Prolific, certainly. In 1990, Westlake earned an Academy award nomination for writing the screenplay to Stephen Frears' "The Grifters". This wasn't Westlake's first attempt at directly creating words for the screen. In 1987, his penned the screenplay for "The Stepfather", a somewhat surprising choice. And, as a last interesting tidbit, it was Westlake's novel titled "The Jugger" that influenced Jean Luc Godard to film "Made In the USA", even though Westlake's novel was never given lip service.

Westlake's most famous character, the ominously named Parker, makes appearances throughout his work, most prominently in "Point Blank" as well as Mel Gibson's "Payback" (another title attributed to Westlake). Westlake is also fond of a character named Dortmunder, brought to charismatic life by Robert Redford in Peter Yates' 1973 noir-comedy, "The Hot Rock". But even though Westlake's relies on repetition, it's a conceit that never fails. But back to "Point Blank". If there's a more influential new wave noir film in the history of cinema, I've yet to see (or even hear about) it. That film alone is responsible for obliterating the long standing threads of classic noir and ushering in a new sensibility... a type of noir that was not restricted by black and white stock and structured pacing. Like the turbulent culture of the late 60's, "Point Blank" dared to exhibit a fractured sense of time and place, hypnotic cinematography and a 'protagonist' in the barest sense of the word. Lee Marvin and director John Boorman certainly deserve credit for their re imagining of Westlake's novel, but its the underlying ideas of "Point Blank" that propel the film- and the genre- forward. Outside of "Point Blank's" genre defining set up, the other bold characteristic of Westlake is his ability to stage hardboiled noirs within a highly comedic universe. The previously mentioned "The Hot Rock", released in 1973 is a remarkably entertaining comedy heist that posits Redford, George Segal and character actor Paul Sand as a team of thieves chasing down an expensive African diamond. Yet the film is not concerned with the robbery of the diamond itself, which is done before the first 30 minutes have lapsed, but its keeping up with the diamond in acutely constructed set pieces after the robbery. While it's sometimes hard to find that balance between crime and comedy without losing face, Westlake has made a virtual career of it.

So that includes the good stuff. What's most infuriating about Westlake's output is no fault of his own, but the inability to see so many of the 70's films based on his work. Late last year, Turner Classic Movies screened John Flynn's "The Outfit" with Karen Black and Robert Duvall very late at night. I tuned in, but fell asleep before it was finished. That's more of a reflection of watching TV at 3am instead of the film's craftsmanship, though. Checking on VHS copies of the film on Ebay, and the cheapest copy can be yours for only $65. The 1968 heist film, "The Split" starring Jim Brown as the leader of a motley crew of thieves trying to rob the LA Coliseum and a young Gene Hackman as the cop chasing him down, is equally hard to find. Foreign adaptations of his work by directors such as Cavalier and Costa-Gavras, have also yet to see the light of day on American shores. I hate to make this yet another MIA DVD posts, but chalk it up to this ADD saturated world where "i-want-everything-and-i-want-it-now". I'm selfish like that about film. I want my obscure 70's crime films and I want them now.

A secret fantasy of mine has always been to be a crime fiction writer. When I'm immersed in a good crime novel or film, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The way there's a private lingo thrown around, the way the characters nerves seem to be blasted with steel and the intricate plotting of the heist treated like an archealogical excavation... all of these things energize my creative juices. As a crime writer, Westlake seems to understand this is what audiences and readers want from him. God bless him.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Top 5- Before He Was Iron Man....

Instead of writing the 11,298th online review of "Iron Man", I thought I'd do something revolutionary and look back at some films of Robert Downey Jr. before he became the nation's reigning superhero. If you loved him in this movie, then you owe yourself the enjoyment of watching him act in these five great films. I guess I can now officially subtitle this blog as the unofficial Robert Downey Jr. site? Second best actor in the last 25 years!

5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

As a comedy, Shane Black's film works very well. As an LA neo-noir, it hits all the right notes, but it's really more funny than anything else. Downey Jr. and co-star Val Kilmer spit out dialogue like lightning in a bottle. The plot veers into some wild asides, but Downey Jr. is clearly having fun and relishing his role. An underrated modern classic.

4. The Gingerbread Man

In Robert Altman's lazy noir, Downey Jr. plays a washed up private detective. Imagine his performance late in "Zodiac" stretched to feature length proportions, and you get the idea. In an otherwise forgettable film, Downey Jr. created some sparks. When one looks back on this time in his career (struggling at the height of his addictions), it's the secondary supporting roles that really shine. This role and his turn as a wise-cracking sidekick in "U.S. Marshalls" reveals the depth of his comfort level in sinking to the background. Note: this spot could easily interchange with his role in "Wonder Boys" on any given day.

3. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

I seem to be one of the few torch-bearers for last year's "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints". From the film's first few seconds, I was hooked and emotionally involved in the journey home for a struggling writer played by Downey. Even though he narrates and has only a small handful of scenes, they are extremely heartbreaking and poignant moments of a man trying to understand his parents. Seek this one out on DVD. The label of 'Scorsese-lite' is an insult. It's more than that.

2. The Pick Up Artist

I remember seeing Downey Jr. in a number of 80's flicks ("Weird Science", "Back To School" and "Tuff Turf") but "The Pick-Up Artist" was when, I feel, he came into his own. This is a completely engrossing performance. While the idea of a man who spends his entire day trying to pick up women on the streets of New York could be knocked out of the park by virtually anyone since the role is flash and double talk, Downey Jr. tinges it with a hint of humor, sensitivity and honesty. Simply mesmerizing to watch him do his thing.

1. Two Girls and a Guy

My favorite performance. Basically a three-act play in which Downey Jr. squirms his way around the fact that the two women he's dating at the same time have met each other and know his secret. This is his definitive acting role. Like the best actors, he lays everything bare on the screen, using his entire body to swagger back and forth between the long takes of director James Toback, improvised dialogue by co-stars Natasha Gregson-Wagner and Heather Graham, and the highs and lows of the film's misogynistic character. Dam YouTube... no clips available.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

70's Bonanza- Two From Peter Fonda

If tempted to create a list of good actors who turned into great directors, Peter Fonda's name would hover pretty close to the top. Pretty much long-forgotten as a character behind the camera, he directed three films from 1971-1979, two of which are distinct and quite good. His directorial debut, "The Hired Hand" released in 1971, stands as one of the decade's best westerns. Straying far from the macho swagger of the late 60's efforts (Leone, Peckinpah), Fonda opts for a more contemplative, almost sensitive, tone. Not exactly a "revisionist" film in the common sense, it's a highly prescient film in the way it ushers in the wave of 70's westerns- films that diametrically oppose their forefathers by wallowing in lush vistas, slow dissolves and iconic images of green landscapes and orange skies (not a bad thing, by any means). In "The Hired Hand", Fonda prefers darkened silhouettes against expansive sunsets, and its a melodic mood ignited in the film's opening minutes as the camera slowly focuses on the men next to a rushing river. Traveling with his friend, Arch (Warren Oates, never better), Harry (Fonda) begins to yearn for the wife and child he left behind seven years ago. After meeting horse thieves and having a young riding partner killed by them, Arch and Harry retreat to the estranged family and wife (played by Verna Bloom). But the idyllic setting of home life is soon disrupted when Arch is kidnapped on the way to California, drawing Harry back into his old lifestyle. The plot mechanisms have to kick in, of course. This IS a western after all. But "The Hired Hand" is so good when it's not rushing for the obligatory gunfight. Being an actor, Fonda certainly has an affinity for reaction and emotions on-screen. What's most amazing about "The Hired Hand" is that he's able to blend everything into a moving and cohesive experience. Not only is the acting A-grade, but the technical prowess (slow tracking shots by Vilmos Zsigmond, hypnotic dissolves and freeze frames) on display are just as stunning. This is a hell of a debut.

With his sophomore film, Fonda made an abrupt about-face. In 1974, Fonda released "The Idaho Transfer", a weirdly disturbing but completely enthralling science-fiction tale about a group of college aged 'scientists' who travel ahead into the future. They find a desolate wasteland, destroyed by some type of ecological disaster. Their mission is to identify what type of disaster it was and fix it if possible. But after sabotage on the time machine, the group is stranded in the future. By it's brief plot description, "The Idaho Transfer" seems like a perfect ft for 70's cheese, but it's much more than that. "The Idaho Transfer" is controlled in its pacing, simple in its mise-en-scene and supportive of its characters. What Fonda lacks in budget, he makes up for in unnerving long takes and silence. One scene finds two of the scientists approaching an abandoned train. As the male scientist walks up to the train and begins opening its doors, a patient lateral pan follows his legs on the other side of the train as he uncovers the horrors inside. When he returns to the female scientist, he describes seeing bodies. It's a telling scene, both in how Fonda chooses to film it and how subtle the macabre details of the apocalypse are doled out. Furthermore, very few structures are observed in the wasteland, but the crumbled ruins that are seen in conjunction with the cracked, red landscape (filmed in Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho) relay a deep sense of decay and destruction. For Fonda, less is definitely more. And while there's still an aire of hippie attitude in the way the characters interact and how laid-back Fonda envisions his survivors of the future, "The Idaho Transfer" manages to instill a strong vision of the future with a relatively cool twist ending.

Perhaps the best attribute of Fonda as a filmmaker is his refusal to follow the prevailing culture of the era. Instead of mimicking the maniacal footsteps of fellow actor/filmmaker Dennis Hopper who created sprawling, out of control films with heavy themes like "The Last Movie" and "Out of the Blue", Fonda's films are restrained and balanced. And while certain circles do recognize the avant garde intent of the two Hopper films mentioned, time has been (unfortunately) less appreciative of Fonda's career behind the camera. In the case of "The Hired hand", it took the work of Martin Scorsese to begin restoration on the film (and wow does the DVD look terrific). In 1979, Fonda did release a film titled "Wanda Nevada" starring a young Brooke Shields, but critical favor and availability of the title has been less kind than "The Hired Hand" and "Idaho Transfer". Both readily available on video, it's time that Fonda receives his due as an actor AND director.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Malick Makes My Wish Come True

Late last year, I posted a wish list that surfaced the idea that one of my favorite directors, Terrence Malick, would get his latest film off the ground. Now, it's not a secret that Malick is from my small hometown in Texas, but while visiting family over the weekend, my mother mentioned that part of downtown had been closed for a movie shoot late on Friday night. She brought the article in and, utterly surprised, it described the possibility of director Terrence Malick shooting scenes for his latest film, "Tree Of Life" which was originally thought to be filming outside of Austin with Brad Pitt. Another article from an Austin source describes the film as a memoir of Malick's days growing up in Waco during the 1950's. Very cool stuff. I can only imagine the lyrical greatness Malick could bring to small town Texas. And I apologize if this is redundant news. This was probably posted weeks ago on Variety and other publications, but since I despise those mags that are one step above tabloids, I gather my news from elsewhere.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Re-post: Best of Lists

In response to the exhaustive postings of lists from The Listening Ear, my own list-making instincts kicked in. We've been trading lists like this for a long time, so it's always fun to dust out the archives and bring these films back into the light of day. Whereas Sam has the guts to go back into the 70's (which if pressed, I suppose I could make those lists) mine starts at 1990 when my film-viewing habits really kicked into gear. Looking over them, its pretty amazing that I wouldn't change any of them. Granted, I could make a few adjustments to what's already there (on any given day, for example, P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Hard Eight" could be interchanged), but the core of films have held up for me over time. Enjoy.

1. Goodfellas (Scorsese)
2. King of New York (Ferrera)
3. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore)
4. Twin Peaks (TV- Lynch)
5. Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (McNaughton)
6. Miller’s Crossing (Coens)
7. Edward Scissorhands (Burton)
8. State of Grace (Joanau)
9. The Godfather Part 3 (Coppola)
10. Wild at Heart (Lynch)

1. The Double Life of Veronique (Kieslowski)
2. The Indian Runner (Penn)
3. JFK (Stone)
4. Zentropa (vonTrier)
5. Grand Canyon (Kasdan)
6. Homicide (Mamet)
7. Ju Dou (Yimou)
8. Bullet in the Head (Woo)
9. Barton Fink (Coens)
10. City of Hope (Sayles)

1. Laws of Gravity (Gomez)
2. Glengary Glen Ross (Mamet)
3. Bad Lieutenant (Ferrera)
4. The Player (Altman)
5. Bob Roberts (Robbins)
6. Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino)
7. All the Vermeers in New York (Jost)
8. A River Runs Through It (Redford)
9. Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou)
10. Last of the Mohicans (Mann)

1. Schindler’s List (Spielberg)
2. Short Cuts (Altman)
3. True Romance (Scott)
4. Fearless (Weir)
5. Age of Innocence (Scorsese)
6. Faraway, So Close (Wenders)
7. A Perfect World (Eastwood)
8. In the Name of the Father (Sheridan)
9. The Puppet Master (Hsiou-Hsien)
10. In the Line of Fire (Peterson)

1. Imaginary Crimes (Drazan)
2. To Live (Yimou)
3. Trois Colors Trilogy (Kieslowski)
4. Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)
5. Last Seduction (Dahl)
6. Dangerous Game (Ferrera)
7. Clean, Shaven (Kerrigan)
8. Red Rock West (Dahl)
9. Quiz Show (Redford)
10. Hudsucker Proxy (Coens)

1. Casino (Scorsese)
2. Heat (Mann)
3. Seven (Fincher)
4. Smoke/Blue In the Face (Auster/Wang)
5. The Kingdom (vonTrier)
6. Funny Bones (Chelsom)
7. Kicking and Screaming (Baumbach)
8. Shanghai Triad (Yimou)
9. Sonatine (Kitano)
10. Little Odessa (Gray)
11. The Day the Sun Turned Cold (Yim)
12. Clockers (Lee)

1. Breaking the Waves (vonTrier)
2. Swingers (Liman)
3. The English Patient (Minghella)
4. The Whole Wide World (Ireland)
5. Lone Star (Sayles)
6. Fargo (Coens)
7. The Funeral (Ferrera)
8. Irma Vep (Assayas)
9. Bottle Rocket (Anderson)
10. Basquiat (Schnabel)
11. Beautiful Girls (demme)
12. He Got Game (Lee)
13. Sleepers (Levinson)

1. Boogie Nights (Anderson)
2. Hard Eight (Anderson)
3. Kundun (Scorsese)
4. Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons)
5. Fireworks (Kitano)
6. La Scorta (Tognazzi)
7. Gattaca (Niccol)
8. Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan)
9. L.A. Confidential (Hanson)
10. Daytrippers (Mottola)

1. The Thin Red Line (Malick)
2. The Big Lebowski (Coens)
3. Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg)
4. The Truman Show (Weir)
5. Out of Sight (Soderbergh)
6. Zero Effect (Kasdan)
7. Chinese Box (Wang)
8. Pi (Aronofsky)
9. The Game (Fincher)
10. A Simple Plan (Raimi)

1. Magnolia (Anderson)
2. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Medem)
3. The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (Williams)
4. The Insider (Mann)
5. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)
6. Limbo (Sayles)
7. Three Kings (Russell)
8. Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella)
9. The Messenger (Besson)
10. The Iron Giant (Bird)

1. Almost Famous (Crowe)
2. Traffic (Soderbergh)
3. Kikujiro (Kitano)
4. Requiem For a Dream (Aronofsky)
5. Wonderland (Winterbottom)
6. Late August, Early September (Assayas)
7. Way of the Gun (McQuarrie)
8. Keeping the Faith (Norton)
9. L’Humanite (Dumont)
10. Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford)

1. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coens)
2. The Yards (Gray)
3. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
4. Memento (Nolan)
5. The Royal Tenebaums (Anderson)
6. The Claim (Winterbottom)
7. Made (Favreau)
8. Chopper (Dominik)
9. Ali (Mann)
10. Eureka (Aoyama)

1. Gangs of New York (Scorsese)
2. The Bed You Sleep In (Jost)
3. Minority Report (Spielberg)
4. Punch Drunk Love (Anderson)
5. 25th Hour (Lee)
6. Insomnia (Nolan)
7. Sex and Lucia (Medem)
8. Narc (Carnahan)
9. Last Orders (Schepsi)
10. The Son’s Room (Moretti)

1. Mystic River (Eastwood)
2. Lost In Translation (Coppola)
3. Return of the King (Jackson)
4. demonlover (Assayas)
5. All the Real Girls (Green)
6. Irreversible (Noe)
7. The Dancer Upstairs (Malkovich)
8. In America (Sheridan)
9. Purple Butterfly (Le)
10. Cold Mountain (Minghella)

1. The Aviator (Scorsese)
2. House of Flying Daggers (Yimou)
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry)
4. Spartan (Mamet)
5. Garden State (Braff)
6. Code 46 (Winterbottom)
7. The Life Aquatic (Anderson)
8. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Hodges)
9. Crimson Gold (Pahar)
10. Collateral (Mann)

2005, aka a great year for Asian cinema:
1. Oldboy (Chan-Wook)
2. Memories of Murder (Ho-Bong)
3. Munich (Speilberg)
4. A History of Violence (Cronenberg)
5. Head-On (Akin)
6. Capote (Miller)
7. Kings and Queens (Desplechin)
8. Throwdown (To)
9. Syriana (Gaghan)
10. Funny Ha Ha (Bujalski)
11. Nobody Knows (Koreda)
12. Kung Fu Hustle (Chow)
13. Layer Cake (Vaughn)
14. 2046 (Kar Wai)
15. Hustle and Flow (Brewer)

1. The Departed (Scorsese)
2. The New World (Malick)
3. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (Montiel)
4. Children of Men (Curaon)
5. Cache (Haneke)
6. Miami Vice (Mann)
7. Clean (Assayas)
8. The Death of Mr. Lazarascu (Puiu)
9. A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)
10. The Three Burials of Melquidas Estrada (Jones)
11. Half Nelson (Fleck)
12. Fast Food Nation (Linklater)
13. Breaking News (To)
14. Devil and Daniel Johnston (Feuerzeig)
15. Tristram Shandy (Winterbottom)

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)
2. There Will Be Blood (Anderson)
3. Zodiac (Fincher)
4. Day Night Day Night (Loktev)
5. Once (Carney)
6. No Country For Old Men (Coens)
7. Sunshine (Boyle)
8. After the Wedding (Bier)
9. Wind That Shakes the Barley (Loach)
10. Knocked Up (Apatow)

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Recently Seen x 4

Heartbeat Detector

Nicholas Klotz's "Heartbeat Detector" (aka "La Question Humaine" as titled in the New Directors/New Films forum earlier this year) is a compelling French drama that elliptically wraps a corporate drama around the much more gastly premise on the after-effects of the Holocaust on a whole generation of people. Starring Mathieu Amalric as Kessler, a psychologist for a large petro-chemical company, he's asked by his superior to research and analyze the mental state of the company's CEO (Michael Lonsdale). As Kessler stumbles closer to the truth about the power plays at work, his own life is shattered by the dark secrets that boil up from the past. "Heartbeat Detector" is certainly not an easy film. Running at 135 minutes, Klotz really gets down to business after the first 90 minutes. But that's not to say that what comes before is completely worthless. In fact, Klotz's hypnotic blend of long takes and original score by composer Syd Matters create interesting digressions as we follow Kessler and his young executives as they dance at raves, spend time cleaning up in marble-walled restrooms and stand in office hallways. And we're also given glimpses at the relationship between Kessler and Louisia (Laetitia Spigarelli), and watch as it slowly disintegrates as Kessler becomes more and more alienated at the facts he uncovers while investigating the CEO. "Heartbeat Detector" is unlike anything I've seen before. The (hugely) important information is doled out in unspoken body language, cryptic anonymous letters and a complex mise-en-scene that often places Amalric in the background of the action (in bars, resturants and concerts). Pitched delicately between moral outrage and quiet office interiors, "Heartbeat Detector" lingers as a devastating and oblique character study of a whole generation.

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai doing Americana, for real, in the actual Americas this time. Like all of his films, "My Blueberry Nights" is strong on atmosphere and mood. But, like the best of his mainland China efforts, "My Blueberry Nights" manages to be sensual without doing a whole lot. Wong understands how to film body language, silences, and his camera is there to encapsulate these mute feelings in swooning slow motion and patient lateral pans. There's a single scene, between cafe owner Jude Law and an old girlfriend that speaks volumes about our fragile connections with old flames, and how devastating it can be when they swoop in and out of our lives. Norah Jones, too, swoops in and out of Law's life (and all around the country) meeting various vagrants of the American landscape including Rachel Wiesz, David Straithern- who deserves a supporting actor nomination work for his turn as a tormented alcoholic in Memphis- and Natalie Portman. This is basically a road movie as only Wong Kar Wai could make... full of speed up landscapes, fluorescent subway trains and life observed from the outside looking in through glass windows. Like German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Wong Kar Wai's 'outsider' views about America don't always translate, but the time warp that envelops "My Blueberry Nights" is transfixing. A splendid film.


Almost like a continuation of his own 1997 murder-mystery "Cure", Kiyoshi Kurosawa is back with "Retribution", this time following a ghostly apparition in red who acts like a malevolent force and causes people to committ random acts of violence against loved ones. It would be easy to classify this as "j-horror", but Kurosawa has the mechanics of the genre down pat and can film this type of ordinary effort in his sleep. What seperates his films from the rest of the pack is his insistence on creating unbearable tension through long takes, unnerving sound design and the perfect eye for light and dark at the edge of the frame. While there's no outright scares in "Retribution", his ghostly apparitions linger in your memory much longer for the way Kurosawa films their unnatural movements, flowing long hair and extreme long takes as the 'things' float directly towards the camera. While "Retribution" is not quite on par with "Kairo", it's an unsettling film nonetheless. Kurosawa's cinema has been largely concerned with the slow-burn approaching of the apocalypse, and "Retribution" carries on the tradition.

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

While "Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle" seemed to tap into some cult-film zeitgeist, bouncing from crude to fresh with ease, "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" captures none of the original's spunk. You know you're in trouble when an hour and 45 minute comedy drags on for what feels like 3 hours. I'm not sure if this signals the end of the stoner comedy (probably not) but it sure feels like a huge stake in the heart. The targets are easy (KKK rallies, the ghettos and inbred backwoods of Birmingham Alabama, and President Bush) but the laughs they attempt to glean fall flat. Pretty horrible all around.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The First Rule About LAMB.....

... is you share the wealth. I'm not sure how well that "Fight Club" reference went over, but it's worth a shot. So I'm an offical member of LAMB, otherwise known as The Large Association of Movie Bloggers. Not only is it a great networking site, but I've already discovered a dozen more highly entertaining blogs from film lovers far and wide. Special thanks to Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre for the hat tip to the site. And thanks to fellow LAMBs who've already populated this small blog with warm comments and a great reception.

Friday, May 02, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #16

Before we get into the latest edition of what's in my Netflix queue (which leaves everyone spellbound, I know) let's take a quick inventory of the first few months of the year. How should I put it? Terrible? Lackluster? Uneventful? Well those last two describe the same thing. This has been a pretty dismal year regardless of which term I use. I've actually left the confines of my home and traveled to a movie-house-theater-thing (its been so long I often forget what they're called!) only 9 times this year. Most of the truly great movies I've seen this year were watched on DVD ("Summer Palace", "Inside") and even these suffered through minimal release in New York and Los Angeles only. The other movies I wanted to see, such as David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" or Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights" came and went in the blink of an eye. Still others like "In Bruges" or the Demi Moore/Michael Caine diamond heist flick "Flawless" played (or are currently playing) at the Landmark cinema waaay on the other side of downtown Dallas... which is a trip that never inspires me to make the effort. Basically, with the ever shrinking window between in-theater dates and DVD release dates, I find myself more than willing to wait. Maybe its my 30-something age wearing on me or the fact that gas is 3 and a half fu**#@! dollars a gallon- either way my movie watching habits have shifted dramatically. A lot of my friends feel the same way. I'm not quite ready to proclaim the demise of the theater experience (and as I type this "Iron Man" will be making 120+ million this weekend), but its dying slowly here in my household.

On a lighter note.... here's what's in my Netflix queue!

1. John From Cincinnati (series disc)- As a huge fan of David Milch's "Deadwood", I'm going into this one with an open mind. I understand it's quite slow and different from his previous cocksuckin' efforts with "Deadwood".
2. Road Games- One of the titles I previously spotlighted from the great DVD company Anchor Bay. This 80's film stars Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis about eighteen wheelers, killers and probably Jamie Lee's breasts.
3. Heaven's Gate- This is one of those films that we're always ashamed to say we've never seen. Well, I've never seen it. And it's the 4 hour director's cut of Cimino's original vision. I've read that it's bashing back in the day was unjustified and the film is actually pretty damn brilliant to look at due to Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography.
4. Who Saw Her Die?- DVD from a new collection of "giallo" slashers never before released. Directed by schlock auteur Aldo Lado. Description says "the daughter of a well-known sculptor is murdered. As the sculptor and his wife investigate, they discover that their knowledge puts them in grave danger, as the killer begins butchering everyone who knows too much. With the body count rising, can truth survive?"
5. Adam's Apples- Danish 'dogme' film starring that kick ass actor named Mads Mikkelsen (the bad guy in "Casino Royale). This one is a black comedy about a paroled crook subtly undermining the local church's power.
6. The Boondock Saints- Never seen it. Time to give it a try after so many friends have urged me to. I just hope it doesn't try too hard to mimic Scorsese or, even worse, that pop-culture tinged dialogue spurned by Tarantino in everything post 1994.
7. Night Train Murders- The second Aldo Lado exploitation flick on this list. This one details two young women trapped on a train with a band of thugs. The VHS copy used to sell for big bucks.
8. Incident At Loch Ness- The director of this mockumentary, Zak Penn, also directed the recent poker mockumentary entitled "The Grand" that looked super-funny and lasted 1 week at that theater waaay down in Dallas that I don't enjoy traveling to. What happened? With a cast like that, it looked solid. I especially loved the smartness of the line from the commentator to David Cross after he didn't recognize Doyle Brunson, and the line was "I think it's a tell if you don't know who Doyle Brunson is." Anyway, "Incident at Loch Ness" is his debut and both of his films have featured Werner Herzog in supporting roles. How cool is that?
9. Fresh Bait- Bertrand Tavernier's critically acclaimed mid 90's film.
10. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie- Straight from Netflix... "Two traveling companions, George (Ray Lovelock) and Edna Simon (Christine Galbo), come across a small town infested with the "living dead" that are satisfying their cannibalistic hunger on anyone they come across." I'll end on that high note.

Bonus You Tube Clip... "The Grand"