Sunday, November 30, 2008

Great Soundtracks

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

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

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

Friday, November 28, 2008

70's Bonanza- Save the Tiger

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

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

"Save the Tiger" is available on DVD.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Double Feature

Slumdog Millionaire

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

A Christmas Tale

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dating Tips

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

Friday, November 21, 2008

On John Adams

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

4 From the Cine

Rachel Getting Married

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

Zac and Miri Make A Porno

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

Heima: Sigur Ros

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

Quantum Of Solace

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trailers I Love

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Los Angeles Plays Itself and Urban Growth (Decay)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #20

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

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

Saturday, November 08, 2008

MOTM: Red Rock West

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

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

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The First of Eastwood's One-Two Punch?

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

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

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

Monday, November 03, 2008

On Generation Kill

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

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

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Regional Review: The Unforeseen

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

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