Sunday, October 26, 2008

Performances I've Loved This Year (so far)

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

1. Winona Ryder

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

2. Olivia Thirlby

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

3. David Stratharn

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

4. Andrew Garfield

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

5. Michael Shannon

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

6. Robert Downey Jr.

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

7. Kristen Stewart

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

8. Richard Jenkins

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

2 Very Different Zombies

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Appreciation: Nick Gomez

In 1992, I was perusing the video store shelves when I came across a VHS copy of a film titled "Laws of Gravity". I had heard about the film through a mutual friend who lived in L.A. and had seen this no-budget indie and raved about it. I gave it a shot. Not only did "Laws of Gravity" become the best film I saw that year, but it's remained one of my very favorite films, period. Starring a young and then unknown Edie Falco and Paul Schulze (both of whom would later explode into the public consciousness on "The Sopranos", and a show in which Gomez would helm a few episodes) as well as an electrifying starring turn by Peter Greene (Zed in "Pulp Fiction"), "Laws of Gravity" was one of the very first indie films to position itself as a 'day in the life' of New York City denizens- a genre that would eventually fall into overblown narcissism and excess in films such as "The Boondock Saints" and "Gravesend". Yet "Laws of Gravity" is an entity all to itself... a film full of gritty realism. It's a film that analyzes the ebb and flow of relationships (both sexual and fraternal) and effortlessly captures a milieu of the down-and-out in Brooklyn... the sect who hustle for every penny. The plot is simple- Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Johnny (Adam Trese) are layabouts. They break into cars for portable stereos to sell for quick cash, meet up with newly released con Frankie (Schulze) and get involved with a sack of stolen guns and carouse and get into arguments with their girlfriends (Falco and Arabella Field). Local shop owner and neighborhood patriarch Sal (Saul Stein) tries to look out for Jimmy, constantly attempting to steer him clear of the more dangerous elements in the borough. Though their circumstances are bleak, the conversations they have and the genuine concern that Jimmy and Jon show for each other pushes "Laws of Gravity" across as one of the most assured Cassavetes-knock off since Cassavetes himself passed away. The conversations and playful teasing as the foursome drink and hang out feel authentic (as does the sweaty, cramped setting). The interaction between the various hoods on the street and in front of local bars is never forced. "Laws of Gravity" is a film that oozes truthfulness... maybe because director Gomez knew the life so well. And that ending... wow. I know older online buddies recognize my supreme awe for this film's denouement, and it can't be overstated.

While "Laws of Gravity" was Gomez's debut, he had worked as an editor and sound recordists on two early 90's Hal Hartley movies before finding minimal backing for "Laws of Gravity". Nominated as one of the five candidates for the Debut Feature Independent Spirit award that year (which it lost to Neil Jiminez's "The Waterdance"), "Laws of Gravity" reached a small yet successful core audience. Ultimately, Gomez received funding for two more films in the mid 90's- "New Jersey Drive" and "illtown" (none of these 3 are available on DVD). Changing only the locale, "New Jersey Drive" focused on a small group of friends and their bad habits of stealing cars. Like "Laws of Gravity", this film was also written by Gomez and represented an underclass of youth that had been studied and reproduced on film for years. But as with "Laws of Gravity", there was something real about his characters and their eternal struggle to live a life of breaking the law while remaining somewhat decent and likable people beneath the hard surface. If anything, that seemed to be Gomez's trademark. You could easily see yourself in the shoes of these young men if one or two things hadn't gone your way in life.

In 1996, Gomez released what has been his most difficult film to date. "illtown", starring Michael Rappaport and Lili Taylor as drug dealers battling other drug dealers in a lazy seaside Florida town. Hallucinatory and dreamy, the entire film feels like it was shot by a man on heroin, which was probably Gomez's intent. While not completely successful, it is the most lethargic and odd slice of 'drug dealing life' one will ever see. And when Tony Danza turns up as an openly gay drug kingpin, "illtown" feels almost like a parody of the genre. Still, Gomez lights and edits this film with an absorbing presence that lulls you into the same type of hazy world inhabited by Rappaport and Taylor. Bringing back alot of the same cast members from "Laws of Gravity" including Adam Trese, Saul Stein and Paul Schulze, it's been years since I've seen this film upon initial release. I wonder if it looks better or worse today.

In 2000, Gomez directed his last feature film- a black comedy called "Drowning Mona". Starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, "Drowning Mona" seems like a job-for-hire by Gomez. Written by someone else and featuring an illustrious name cast, the film charts the suspicion of an entire town after the aforementioned Mona drives her car into a lake. Funny at times, "Drowning Mona" was a middling effort.

After that feature, Gomez immersed himself in television work, adding his vision to seminal TV works such as "Oz", "The Shield" (in which he directs the episode where Captain Acaveda gets raped by a drug dealer... and anyone who watches "The Shield" will understand the brutality of this episode), "Crossing Jordan", "Veronica Mars", "Keen Eddie", "Sleeper Cell" and most recently several episodes of Alan Ball's HBO vampire series "True Blood". Not completely lost in the wilderness of television- which, with the quality of so many groundbreaking series, is never a terrible thing- Gomez is currently in production on a film called "The Passenger" which details the early music career of Iggy Pop. While it's nice to see Gomez has found steady work on the small screen, I'll still be waiting for the glorious temperament that brought us "Laws of Gravity" on the big screen. It's been too long.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Los Angeles Plays Itself...Finally

Due to the kindness of strangers and the openness of the internet, I was able to have a copy of Thom Anderson's "Los Angeles Plays Itself" sent to me over the weekend. Many thanks! I can now scratch one off my list of Produced and Abandoned.

Thoughts on the film will be relayed at a later date. It's been busy here around the homestead and I'll be postig more this week.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Blindness

Fernando Meirelles's "Blindness" is a completely divisive affair. Raked over the coals at Cannes and forced to drop a supposedly laborious voice over from a secondary character played by Danny Glover, the latest incarnation of Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago's novel is no less a disturbing roll down a dark hole. If films like "Beverly Hills Chihuaha" are the current cute escapes from reality, then "Blindness" is the epitome of adult cinema- and its no wonder that it's a movie sinking in theaters like the Titanic. Following a basic three act structure, the film opens with the inexplicable spreading of the 'white sickness' around an unnamed city. Taking cues from Romero's "The Crazies" as well as Candian actor/writer/director Don McKellar's own vision of the encroaching apocalypse (with "Last Night"), "Blindness" is compelling and disorienting. Meirelles uses every type of lens overexposure and rack focus known to man. The second half, which composes a majority of the movie, traps the viewer inside an abandoned hospital as the government dumps the patients affected inside- then forces us to indulge in the inhuman and inhospitable living conditions of the characters. Floors are smeared with human feces, the claustrophobic quarters are maddening, and the camera routinely alternates from deep blacks to blinding white with maniacal precision. It was during this portion (which also includes a deceptively sleek microcosm of the collapsing universe through the various factions that arise within the patients) that I slowly realized there's no escape. Like it's blind characters- except Julianne Moore who dissolves into a messiah figure- there's no where to go. "Blindness" locks you up with these people and gives no relief. Jealousy, filth, rape and violence are the common components of trade. This is a film that deteriorates quickly and turns your stomach. And I assume that's the point. Mierelles wants us to endure the same punishing environment that Julianne Moore inhabits. In this regard, "Blindness" succeeds magnificently. But does that alone make "Blindness" a great movie? If a film recreates its claustrophobic mood in such a perfect manner, does it deserve more or less recognition?

After this stomach-turning second act, "Blindness" finds a redemptive tone and opens up a new path for a select few of the patients in its third act. With this and the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" later this year, it seems that the apocalypse genre is a hugely viable option right now. I'm not ready to proclaim "Blindness" as the torch carrier for all others to follow, but there's no denying the film's gut-punch aesthetic. This might be one that I need to see again and judge with a more objective eye (now that I know what to expect). Still, this is in no way the debacle that it's being called. If nothing else, "Blindness" achieves that rare connection which forces the viewer to interact with the movie on a visceral level. I guess that's always a good thing when art can impact our emotions.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Links and Such

Week 4 of the Trahscan Odorous Jr. radio show is in the books and can be found here. If you're a Dallas Cowboys fan, then I urge you not to listen to the sports show as I get pretty virulent about 'America's supposed team'.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a blogathon about films that I had to see but couldn't for whatever shameful distribution reasons. Looks like one of those films may be coming off that list. Abel Ferrera's "Mary" is set for a limited release in New York after three years in exile. There's also a New York times article that writes about Ferrera and his long-lost film. Here's hoping "Go Go Tales" and "Chelsea On the Rocks" aren't far behind.

And, in the spirit of Halloween, here's a repost of the great blogathon from last year that culled the "films that give you the willies" from dozens of great blogs and hosted by Ed Hardy at his Shoot the Projectionist site. Scroll through the complete 181 titles nominated and find yourself a few good titles to rent for your nights alone. Or you could just get really, really scared by visiting Piper at his blog.

Friday, October 10, 2008



Character actor Clark Gregg ("The Adventures of Sebastian Cole")chose as his debut film as a director the arduous task of adapting a Chuck Palahniuk novel to the screen. King of the self-loathing miscreant (with Bret Easton Ellis a close second), Palahniuk's novels are tough sells, but if one understands what they're getting into with "Choke", then they will probably like it all the same. Sam Rockwell gives yet another tremendous performance as Victor, an emotionally dented man who skips his sex addiction sessions to have sex in the adjacent bathroom with another addict, spends his days visiting his mother in a psychiatric ward, and putting on displays of choking fits in crowded restaurants to earn 'friends' who think they saved his life and, hence, feel financially indebted to help him out. Not a pleasant sight, to say the least. Palahniuk's stream of conscience voice over is intact, and "Choke" wallows in the same nihilistic pretenses as his other filmed adaptation ("Fight Club") but there's a slight bit of redemption in the end for this character. It doesn't get completely warm and fuzzy, but through its misogynistic ugliness, "Choke" manages to elicit a small dose of human connection and excuses Victor for some of his contempt. This is about as happy as a Palahniuk ending can get.


Ed Harris' second film as a director will undoubtedly be contested within the ranks of the dozen or so other modern westerns to populate the scene since 1992 when Eastwood's "Unforgiven" made the genre viable again. "Appaloosa" is a simple, restrained western that probably won't win many votes, but it does register as the closest example to the true spirit of the genre than many others. Its two main characters- Harris and a quietly powerful Viggo Mortenson, whom the film is really about- are men with very little to say outside of their actions. There are no long, drawn out gunfights. The violence happens swiftly...almost like an afterthought to the posing and intellectual calculations that the groups of opposing lawmen and outlaws find themselves in. This swiftness feels rather authentic, though, and will probably bore most audiences salivating over the action of last year's "3:10 To Yuma". And Jeremy Irons, as the villainous cattle baron, is so good that it makes me wonder why the hell he hasn't been offered this before. I really admired this film for stopping, taking a breath and slowing the genre down a bit.While I still feel "Open Range" is one of the most under appreciated westerns of the last decade, there's always room for the introverted, passive style of Harris' interpretation.

The Rape of Europa

I often descend into hyperbole. I admit it. So if anyone takes offence to my common cries about this film being the best of its genre, or that movie rating as one of the most disturbing movies of its kind, I plead that you ignore those previous over statements and believe me when I call "The Rape of Europa" an important film... and one that everyone should see. On one level, this is a film about the plundering of art across Europe during World War 2 for vain and selfish reasons. On another level, this is a sobering account of cruelty and inhuman destruction that, by now, should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington or watched any documentary on Hitler and his cronies' expansion across Russia, France, Poland and Italy. And yet, "The Rape of Europa" still resounds as harrowing piece of footage that continues to shock and mortify with astounding photos and first person testimony recalling the swath of scorched earth that Germany's advancing army left behind. They destroyed early century architecture as they retreated from towns just to watch them burn... their invasion of certain countries happened to correlate with that country's trove of art masterpieces... they took control of a 13th century monastery, knowing the Allied forces wouldn't bomb it and then retreated hours before the Allies actually did bomb the landmark... Hitler and other German officers created 'want lists' of paintings and sculptures within certain museums and private collections. The film explicitly suggests that, to some extent, coveting these great works of art was an underlying motive to Hitler and his army. "The Rape of Europa" provides a clear-eyed examination of Hitler's burning desire to systematically wipe out the cultures and artistic heirlooms of whole societies. And then, the film takes a redemptive turn and shows us the groups of Allied men and women who spent the last year of the war (and lifetimes afterward) searching for most of the missing art and desperately trying to regain a small part of a culture that was ripped apart. Infinitely moving and educational, "The Rape of Europa" was directed by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen. This is a terrific film that takes a different slant on the atrocities of war. A real must see.


Alan Ball's "Towelhead" opted for the more controversial title (originally named "Nothing Is Private") and that pretty much sums up the over-reaching attitude of the film. It wants to be edgy and shocking (13 year old Middle Eastern girl meets racism and sexual deflowering in suburban Houston) but winds up as little more than rote. While young actress Summer Bashil as Jasira gives a leveled performance, the same can't be said for Aaron Eckhart. Yes, the guy who can seemingly do no harm after his star-making turn in "The Dark Knight" gives a false performance, starting with his horribly conceived Texas accent. And therein lies the real problem with Ball's film. There's no sense of time or place even though the film's plot hinges on the fact that Jasira and her Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi) live in 1991 Houston and suffer through the pre-conceived racism as their country fights the first Gulf War- and its an ironic side note that Jasira's father hates Saddam as much, if not more, than most Americans. Parts are done really well, but most of the film suffers from its desire to be envelope-pushing.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Technical Challenges Be Damned

So... with my internet problems finally solved, I feel like a junkie who's been clean for three months and just now took another hit. It's nice to have internet/phone/HD TV again and feeling back in the technological loop. I apologize for several blog-a-thons I missed and having close to 700 posts on my Google Reader.

In the meantime, the latest blogtalkradio editions of the Trashcan Odorous Jr show with my buddy Chris and I can be found here and here. We're still searching for the right time slot, and we've expanded to two hours- one show for sports and another for film (and damn it, we still run out of time on both). I hope to be back and posting in full swing tomorrow or the day after.