Friday, February 27, 2009

Top 5 List: Obscure Prison Dramas

Granted, no movie is really obscure. There's a rabid audience for pretty much any thing put out there, but this list intends to shine a light on the more overlooked prison dramas... which is why films like "Cool Hand Luke", "Escape From Alcatraz", "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Papillion" are duly absent. Enjoy and feel free to add your own.

1. "The Criminal"- Joseph Losey is a cerebral filmmaker, and this 1960 film starring Stanley Baker is a calculated and cold look at a criminal who refuses to be rehabilitated. Even though only about half the film takes place inside an actual prison, all the great genre tropes are there, including a nicely composed riot and the omniscient sense of claustrophobia that haunts any career criminal whose locked away from causing malevolence in the real world. This film is out on DVD. If you haven't given the films of Losey a chance, I urge you to do so.

2. Animal Factory- The latest entry on the list, and pretty damn close to the best. I wasn't a huge fan of Steve Buscemi's directorial debut "Trees Lounge", but with this adaptation of Eddie Bunker's novel in 2000, Buscemi appears in full control. From the opening shot- a carefully composed overhead static shot of the prison yard cut in two by the prison buildings- to John Lurie's enigmatic and compulsively weird score, "Animal Factory" comes into focus as a very realistic-feeling interpretation of life behind bars. Ever wonder exactly how prisoners hide and get ahold of knives? How does one inmate run the prison? Writer Bunker (an ex-con himself, memorable for his role in "Reservoir Dogs") and director Buscemi answer all of this with wide-eyed determination. And the film features a stirring set-piece that sensibly documents how a standard prison yard dispute violently culminates into a full-on riot. "Animal Factory" alternates a vision behind bars that is frightening, weird (such as one scene which features live entertainment and a man singing) and makes me appreciate my law-abiding life. Watch out for a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke as well.

3. The Glass House- This early 70's made-for-TV movie stars Alan Alda as a mild mannered teacher sent to prison for manslaughter. Cheaply made, the film manages to score a host of 70'c character actors to add depth to the overall project. Vic Morrow co-stars as the man who runs things in the prison and the film displays some particularly nasty ideas for a film designed to play on the boob tube. Alan Alda is perfect for the role, and he makes you feel for the guy. Based on a Truman Capote story, give this one a chance.

4. Brubaker- I've heard the criticisms against this film. Redford, as the new guy sent to a rough and tough Southern prison, would never get to keep those golden sideburns and floppy hair. C'mon guys... this is 80's Hollywood and this is Robert Redford. How else do you get women to see a PRISON film? Predictable and sappy at times (especially with its liberal swipes) but still a hugely entertaining film about a new warden who decides to go undercover and see the indignities of his prison first-hand before taking control. And we get a very young Morgan Freeman as a half-insane inmate who smears shit all over the walls!

5. Bad Boys- Before Sean Penn was a marquee Academy award winner (and he went full retard), he served his time in the hard-knocks juvenile detention center in this '83 film. Strong acting and a genuine sense of danger permeate this 'teens behind bars' film and Penn, swaggering through it with his tough guy attitude, reveals a small hint of what would come later with his career. Hard-nosed supporting turns add a dash of menace as Penn struggles to stay alive after being placed in the same detention center as the fellow gang member (Esai Morales) whose brother he accidentally killed. It's an interesting conflict that director Rick Rosenthal squeezes every inch of tension out of.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Perfect Blend of Sports and Movies

Thanks to Row Three for initially surfacing this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I intended to take a couple months off, not go to many new releases (really... typically how bad is January and February?) and catch up on some other things I've been putting off, such as concentrating on work and knock out a few books on the shelf. Then I go and catch 5 films in a couple weeks. I guess that's the movie fanatic in me that I'll never shake. It's a nice problem to have, though.

Two Lovers

James Gray's "Two Lovers" is an abrupt change-of-pace from his three previous films that deal in the communal ties of family and loyalty within the milieu of New York crime and political corruption. But it's a very nice change-of-pace, and one that continues to cement my appreciation for Gray's sharp eye and ear. Brooklyn man Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), lives with his parents after some hints of emotional problems and finds himself involved with two very different women- straight laced, traditional Jewish girl Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and fast-and-free wild blond girl Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow in a great performance). Like a good auterist, all the common themes of his previous films are present and the narrative is loose and observational, working in delicate moments of family interaction that give his work a dramatic weight (such as one terrifically unexpected scene between mother and son). In this emo-love story, Gray gives ponderous authority to every phone call and turns the image of a woman walking down an alley into a nightmarish mixture of angst and shadowy anxiety. It's nice to see Gray flip the script and stretch out in unexpected ways. A very good film.


Steven Soderbergh's "Che" is an intellectualized look at revolutionary 'guerrilla' Che Guevara both in scope and visual schematics. Foregoing any close-up shots and documenting everything in medium or long shot- which seems to be a conscious choice given the film's demanding attention to Che and his political ideals of Communism and group unity- "Che" attempts to overload us with mundane details in both parts. And that's the problem with the film. Part One, which deals with Che's partnership and fighting in Cuba alongside Fidel Castro, is certainly the more striking of the two films. There's an immediacy to the violence that's shocking, positioning the camera in just the right spot to allow the viewer to understand the logistics of the action (something that is sorely missing in most of today's cut-a-second action moments). It'd be invigorating to see what Soderbergh could do with a full on World War 2 film. But, Part One is undercut by a general lack of motivation. Where did Che get such strong feelings for revolution? He obviously cares about his position as a doctor and healing people... what made him turn against that profession and become the de facto case for guerrilla violence? In his attempt to drain the emotions out of the story, Soderbergh has crafted a tale that leaves one scratching their heads. Part Two, in my opinion, suffers even more in abstract ideology than Part One. Now attempting to transpose his successful coup in Bolivia years later, the film dissects Che's mission as an inverted mirror. Everything that went right in Cuba shatters to pieces in Bolivia. Weak morale, sickness, undisciplined soldiers- it all comes unhinged before our eyes as Soderbergh furiously maps out every detail of this group. We see the soldiers talk about strategy... we observe them walk from village to village... we get glimpses of the inner turmoil amongst the soldiers... and there are obscure references to USA (i.e. CIA) support. As a case in tedious deconstruction of a guerrilla movement, I suppose Soderbergh achieved what he was after. To me, Part Two wears out its welcome long before history runs it course- simply because the purpose and motivation inherently absent in Part One comes home to roost in Part Two. Why should I care about any of this? I commend Soderbergh for his efforts, but it's hard to take this dry (and largely sanitized) version of a warmonger seriously.

I'm A Cyborg, But That's Ok

I really, really love Chan Wook Park. And even the masters lapse into an occasional mis-step. "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok" is just that. Visually impeccable (full of carefully orchestrated lateral pans, jumbled action bouncing around all edges of the frame, and a peppermint visual strategy at times), Park's latest puts us inside a mental institution with a girl (Su-jeong Lim) who falls in love with fellow patient Rain (Park ll-sun). Being locked inside this setting with these characters who pace around, scream, talk to vending machines and harbor fantastic visions that don't exist has its moments of whimsicality, but it soon turns maddening. The girl, who believes she's a cyborg sent to Earth as a warrior, gets some visual mileage as she imagines herself running rampant through the hospital and Park is obviously having fun after the dread and doom of his Vengeance trilogy, yet I never connected with the film' smorgasbord pop imagery or shrill characters. Major disappointment.

The International

And the surprise of my early movie-going year has to be Tom Tykwer's "The International". Smart in most instances and stylish enough to put most recent thrillers to shame, it's also a timely affair that raises the idea of one shadow bank rising up to support and engender violence around the world. It doesn't always work (see my next review) but foreign directors often bring a fresh eye to the true and tried genre film, and German Tykwer certainly does that here, patiently allowing scenes to play out before cutting and staging one expertly imagined shoot-out in the Guggenheim museum. And everything else, including the plot and acting by Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Armin Mueller-Stahl, are first rate. Pretty much anyone who reads this blog understands my penchant for 70's thrillers, and "The International" mixes just the right touch of subtle intrigue and tense mise-en-scene to fully announce itself as a throwback to those great pieces of cinema. Also, the manner in which Tykwer continually dwarfs the actors against architecture strikes at the heart of something much deeper than the plot. It's a nice aesthetic that mimics the film's sinister underbelly of corporate control and Illuminati-like conspiracy theories.


Pierre Morel's "Taken" starts off badly and never really recovers. For the first 30 minutes, Luc Besson's script is seemingly tone-deaf, culling some mythical Britney Spears-like atmosphere in which a twenty-something actress plays a 17 year old girl who wears dresses and sneakers and goes crazy for a pony as a birthday present. Then we get the pop-singer with a heart of gold attacked by a stalker with a knife backstage, saved by bad-ass Liam Neeson to show-off what the film spends the next 100 minutes elaborating upon. Instead of serving as character building, these horribly contrived scenes are alienating. Then "Taken" subjects us to numerous eye-racking fights and car crashes edited within an inch of their life, whizzing by without a sense of space or movement. It's fun to see Liam Neeson kick ass and take names, but little else.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Who's That Girl?

For some reason or another, I've been on an 80's movie kick lately. The latest to arrive from Netflix was 1985's "Tuff Turf", starring James Spader as a bicycle riding, break dancing version of James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause". As the new kid in town, Spader quickly upsets the local gang of thugs (identified by their bare-chested outfits, greased hair and switchblade carrying personas). But despite this war of conformism vs. non-conformism, he does fall in love with the head bullies' girlfriend, a long haired vixen named Frankie. From the moment 'Frankie' was on-screen, I was perplexed. Where do I remember this girl? Who is she? Wow she's beautiful in that funky 80's way. I quickly ran to IMDB and discovered it was none other than Kim Richards, childhood star and the first girl in a movie I can remember being attracted to.

I probably watched "Escape To Witch Mountain" and "Return To Witch Mountain" more than any other movie as a young boy. As the star in both of those movies, Richards became a Disney icon for these roles. Then came "Meatballs Part 2", a film that I often had to watch on the sly because it was rated R. After seeing "Tuff Turf" all these years, I can proudly say my affections for her aren't shameful. Sometimes, we look back on childhood crushes with disdain and wonder what we ever saw in them. Richards was (and still is) gorgeous. And a not-too-bad actress as well. In "Tuff Turf" she holds her own as the girl divided between a taste for edginess and her middle class desire to settle down with a good person like Spader. It's an interesting performance in a movie that serves as a true time capsule to the 80's, edited and shot at times like a bad 80's video.

While Richards made only a couple films after 1990, she is listed as a credit in the upcoming The Rock remake of the Witch Mountain franchise. I don't know if that'll be enough to get me out to see the thing, but I might give it a second look on DVD. And a few facts- Richards is the aunt to Hilton girls and she was in "The Blair Witch Project"? Never dawned on me. If nothing else, seeing "Tuff Turf" was a neat experience for bringing back so many good memories of Richards. And FYI... if you find this type of stuff interesting, I implore you to check out The Moviezzz Blog and then click on his series of posts titled "Whatever Happened To?" He does this sort of thing with more passion (and intensive research) than I ever could.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Regional Review: Last Night At the Alamo

Another check marked can be applied to one of the films on my Produced and Abandoned Must See list. And, of all places, it's viewing came courtesy of IFC. Yes, in between their 125th showing of a film called "Let Him Have It", the channel slipped in ONE showing of Eagle Pennell's seminal Texas cult film. It felt like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Pennell's second film, which has been marked as the inspiration for filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, tells the simple, drunkenly tale of the patrons of a bar in Houston during its last night in operation. With a few exterior shots in the very beginning as Ichabod (Steven Mattila) and his girlfriend Mary (Tina Bess Hubbard) drive to the Alamo bar, Pennell's film is an example of indie filmmaking on a sparse budget. Even though the city of Houston is largely unrepresented, the languid and humid coastal Texas summer setting hangs over every frame of the film. It's the type of heat that we've all experienced- we drink to stay cool and never stay cool because we get drunk. 99% of the movie takes place inside the dank Alamo bar where sunlight seems to act as bright rays of sun that sends piercing stabs into the bar darkness. And the assorted cast huddled inside the bar- the brash and good looking Cowboy (Sonny Carl Davis), the drunk and lovelorn Claude (Lou Perryman)- hover from the light and sink deeper into their drinks as the night wears on. There are fights, shotguns pulled, LOTS of swear words (from a very liberal and rambling script by Texas screenwriter Kim Henkel best known for his collaboration with Tobe Hooper on "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre") and fights that threaten to break up relationships...everything that routinely happens in a beer-swigging, loose Texas bar on its final night of business.

"Last Night At the Alamo" breaks no new rules. The joy of the film lies in its rag-tag bunch of layabouts and misanthropes. The most dynamic character, Cowboy is just that- a boot wearing, smooth talking, long sleeve shirt wearing good 'ol boy who blows into the bar and gets everyone whooping and hollering. He eventually hooks up with the prettiest woman in the bar (Amanda Lamar) who ends up in the bar with her friend, overdressed and "slumming", pisses her off, starts a fight, and drives away in the same drunkened state that seems to cap off every night. At that's precisely the underlying point of "Last Night At the Alamo", an ironic title if I've ever heard one. Even though the Alamo is closing- an event that hints at an economic depression in the area- and a stalwart establishment is taking its leave, the Ichabods and Cowboys and Claudes of the world will continue their merry-go-round of drinking and talking long after the Alamo fades in their memory. They'll just drink and flirt and fight somewhere else. Tomorrow night will be the first night somewhere else. Pennell accurately captures this passing of time with humor and grandiose Texas swagger. And from all the stories I've read of him, Cowboy may be his alter ego. "Last Night At the Alamo" is definitely a film worth waiting for. Now, if only IFC would schedule MORE shwoings of it.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Rolling Around In My Head

Maybe this blog can serve as an exorcist when songs are stuck inside my head. Like the idea that by posting them for everyone to hear, they'll somehow be expunged from my head? Doubtful. Still, take a look and listen to the below video from a band called We Are Scientists. This one is definitely the catchiest of the bunch (and a hell of a funny video to boot!). It's prominent placement in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" doesn't hurt its exposure either.

This second one is from a relatively new band on my scene. They're called The Airborne Toxic Event. I need to do a little further digging on these guys. Reminiscent of The Arcade Fire, I don't think they're quite as talented as them... or do they create music that builds to the melodic crescendos quite as nicely as Arcade Fire. But there's potential. And the song tells a nicely etched story that we can all relate with.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

TV Alert: Brotherhood

In keeping with my long history of being the last person to ever catch onto the various waves of popular culture on TV, I humbly submit another overlooked gem that I've discovered in its unfashionable second run (i.e. DVD). It's Showtime's "Brotherhood"- a show commonly referred to as bargain basement "Sopranos" since it deals with a Northeastern family (Rhode Island, not Jersey) struggling against their complicity with the fringes of the mafia in similar ways to Tony Soprano and his multi-layered six season run. The big difference with "Brotherhood", though, is its attention to the moral gray areas that accompany the Caffee family since one brother, Tommy (Jason Clarke) is deeply rooted as a local politician while the other, Michael (Jason Isaacs) returns home the prodigal son after seven years and immediately resumes his conquest to create a criminal organization. Dividing its time between bustin' heads on the streets and filibusters deep within the halls of civic duty, creator Blake Masters and main writer Henry Bromell (known for directing/writing the film "Panic" with William H. Macy) strike a hearty comparison that either trade isn't too far removed from the other. It's not a completely original idea, but "Brotherhood" creates a strong sense of knowledge about both worlds that seeps off the screen in fascinating textures.

It's probably inevitable that a series such as this (created after "The Sopranos" and by a rival network no less) would sustain middling excitement. Even going into the first episode, I wasn't optimistic that "Brotherhood" would grasp my attention. But, comparisons to "The Wire" in how the show succinctly presents intelligent glances into city government without losing touch with the more human elements (namely Tommy's family and complex wife, played by the beautiful Annabeth Gish) ultimately coaxed me to give the series a shot. I'm certainly glad I did. This isn't "The Sopranos", but there's always room for different interpretations to a similar story, and "Brotherhood" excels at creating the same type of immersion into a culture (this time Irish Catholic dominated Providence, Rhode Island) that David Chase managed with his earlier trendsetter. More low key but no less ambitious, "Brotherhood" tangles with the Biblical- titling its episodes after Bible verses- and sheds equal screentime on so many tangents of this family and their chosen paths (good or bad) that it reaches a sublime mixture of personal and educational. Just as focused and intelligent as Tommy is on his own personal movement within local and state government, writer Blake Masters rounds out his gangster brother, Michael, with just as much intelligence and dedication in his own pursuit of incorporating the less-than-honest denizens of the neighborhood. Needless to say, the show is gearing up for a Cain and Abel like explosion that will pit brother against brother. I'll be watching. And I hope more converts join the ranks.