Friday, March 27, 2009

French New Wave Blogathon! Calling All Blogathon Entries!

Jump cuts. Sultry black and white cinemetography. Cool cigarettes dangling from lips. Pretty women who speak of Sarte and Voltaire.

What more could anyone want in French cinema? 50 years ago (and anyone can argue a year or two) Claude Chabrol, Francious Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard burst onto the scene with electric bolts of cinema like "Le Beau Serge", "The 400 Blows" and "Breathless". The London BFI is celebrating the movement with a host of films throughout April.

Therefore, I hereby declare the French New Wave blogathon officially open April 9-12th (yes, Easter weekend). Any and all posts are welcome. Reviews, screengrabs, posters, thoughts, memories.... it's wide open. Simply e-mail your links or leave me a comment and I'll be adding all weekend. Spread the word. I look forward to everyone's participation.

3 From the Art House


"Hunger", the visually striking first film from British director Steve McQueen, has been getting raves since popping up on the festival circuit last year. Unrelentingly brutal from start to finish, McQueen (who hails from an installation artist background) chose as his subject a group of IRA prisoners sentenced to incarceration in 1981 and the ensuing hunger strike that eventually forced minimal changes on the political status of IRA prisoners. The first half of "Hunger" is virtually a silent combination of harsh images (feces smeared walls, the brutality of the guards onto the prisoners) and a wandering mosaic of life in and around the prison. Initially focusing on two prisoners (Brian Milligan and Liam McMahon) and a prison guard (Stuart Graham) whose bloody knuckles speak to a deeper level of seething hatred, "Hunger" almost feels too messy and too avant garde for its own good. Then, we're introduced to Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in a 15 minute long take as he has a conversation with a priest about the reasons for his decision to go on a hunger strike. While that scene alone is a magnificent piece of acting that digs deep into the religious and political motivations for Sands' desperate and suicidal plea, there's a three minute scene immediately following that discussion that packs the real punch. The final third of "Hunger" narrows its focus on the visceral and visual depletion of Sands' body as he limps through the stages of dehydration, starvation and complete physical collapse. It's harrowing stuff, even if we do tend to forget that these guys were convicted terrorists who killed and maimed in service of a belief. No, "Hunger" doesn't go the route of Jim Sheridan and "In the Name of the Father", giving us a protagonist who is seemingly innocent in his confined battles over 'the troubles'. Sands makes no case for his innocence. If one can put those feelings on hold and listen to the discussion between Sands and the priest, "Hunger" does present this murky collision of ideas with intelligence and multi-faceted openness.

The Great Buck Howard

Sean McGinly's "The Great Buck Howard" is a brisk, breezy movie- yet also inconsequential, as if it was made for the small screen. Based on the life of the Amazing Kreskin and McGinly's own job as his personal assistant, Colin Hanks fills in the autobiographical shoes and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the film's "meh" attitude. I've seen Hanks in a couple different films now, and he feels blank, bland and boring. Sprucing up the affair, though, is Emily Blunt as a press agent who looks incredible and there's always John Malkovich as the titular character (or mentalist) who imbues Buck Howard with just the right amount of zaniness and quirkiness to gain some nice mileage out of the film's shaggy-dog take on low-rent showbiz. Nothing special here, but not a bad film either.


Matteo Garrone's "Gomorra" deserves some credit for attempting to dislodge the usual perception American viewers have of the Mafia in Italy. La Cosa Nostra's black hand does pulse through most of this film's background, but Garrone has accomplished something altogether different- presenting the mob as customary and as indistinguishable as the lowly street gangs and hoods that populate our urban city streets. Sure, I suppose one could call the layers of low-life kids, bumbling thieves, waste disposal honchos and sweat shop managers 'criminals' in the loosest sense of the word, but "Gomorra" wallows in the intermingled slums of several Italian barrios with causal dis-regard for anything resembling "organized crime". There are random shootings and two guys straight out of "Dumb and Dumber" who play act Tony Montana, but the crumbling decay of crime on everyone is front and center... hence Garrone's symbolic title. Circling around five distinct stories, "Gomorra" is intriguing for its detached, static tone. There's not much to care about here, but technically, "Gomorra" is worth seeing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Ramblings

I've got a grab-bag of thoughts and clips in this post. Nothing of real substance here... although I'll be seeing my 4th new film in 7 days either Wednesday or Thursday- so there's some reviews-a-comin'.

First, everyone needs to check out this post from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog. Not only does it strike at the heart for so many of us film-obsessed fans, but it floods back my own memories of buying and devouring film books back in the late 80's and early 90's and being just as heartbroken about not being able to see the films mentioned. I'm trying to rectify that now, but some titles from the wonderful books of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Amos Vogel's "Film As A Subjective Art" still (and probably always will) elude me.

Over the past year or so, I've come to grow and really appreciate the humor of South Park. I'm not sure how big the following for this show still is, but for me, I find myself eagerly awaiting each week's new episode. While the early years seemed to be an excuse for potty-mouthed humor, the last 3-4 seasons feel like some of the most incisive social and political humor available today. I smile just thinking about the "Heavy Metal episode" with Kenny... or the old west recreation town whose actors refuse to break character even when terrorists attack.... and especially the World of Warcraft episode. Then, last week, we get a "Dark Knight" episode that is so perfectly written and executed, it makes me wish Trey Parker and Matt Stone were given more chances in the film world. I guess now I have to see "Baseketball". And Butters is one of my favorite characters... ever.

And two recently released trailers. First, Michael Mann's "Public Enemies". Seeing this trailer in front of "Watchmen" was worth the price of admission. Much has been made about Mann's preference to go HD digital with this film, but I think it looks striking. The scene where the inmates are being led into the jail with the camera poised to highlight the blue sky overtaking the frame is vintage Mann and I trust the 30's locale will mesh beautifully with the cinematography. I cannot wait for this movie.

Lastly, I'm not a huge, huge fan of comedies on the big screen, yet the Broken Lizard comedy troupe have continually surprised and engaged me with their films. I still maintain that "Club Dread" is an overlooked gem. Now, the Lizard is back with another film that looks to carry forward their energetic brand of comedy, mixing high-brow and low-brow laughs into a go-for-broke experience. Enjoy the red band trailer.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Revisiting A Modern Classic: L.627

After recently watching Bertrand Tavernier's "In the Electric Mist", that film made me miss "L.627" all the more. While "In the Electric Mist" isn't a complete failure, it's mixture of Southern gothic, hard boiled detective novels and clunky exposition doesn't seem to represent the best of Tavernier's senses. A French filmmaker not afraid to put himself on the line and film a quintessential "American" story (see "Round Midnight", even though it documents the musician's exploits in France), Tavernier's 1992 film "L.627" is his masterpiece.... and still not available for digestion on region 1 DVD.

My love of the "police procedural" genre is well documented around these parts, and "L.627" could be considered the boiled-down essence of this style of filmmaking. Starring Didier Bezace as Lulu, he's a dedicated and no-nonsense police detective who leads a small group of undercover officers in all areas of vice in France- and in fact, the film's title comes from a police law that criminalizes drugs and prostitution. The day-to-day work of these officers is filmed in great detail. Marginalized in other police films in favor of the grand shoot-out or car chase, "L.627" reverts its gaze on the mundane details of their police work. Sure, there are stake-outs and foot chases (rendered in calculated long takes that stays on the cops rather than the crooks), but Tavernier's film deals most explicitly in the typewriting, the questioning of criminals in their cramped quarters, and the joking that exists between the cops in order to survive their days. In the wrong hands, this could be a crushing bore. But with Tavernier, he infuses every frame with generosity, curiosity and a knack for hitting the quiet brilliance within this fictionalized (but very real) slice of life.

But, "L.627" isn't all doldrums. The real spark of the film comes in Lulu's dogged (and platonic) relationship with a hooker named Marie (Charlotte Kady). Interspersed between his ethical commitment to ridding the Parisian streets of drugs, his affection for this down and out spirit resonates strongly throughout... and it provides us with an ending that still to this day stands as one of the most perfect I've ever seen. Tavernier's film belongs to a strict code of film overseas that places significant focus on work and it's altering effect on the individual. Thinking of Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" (which deals with the insufferable purgatory that invades a man after losing his job) or Jean Claude Brisseau's "Secret Machines" (which is an aggressive assault on sexuality and manipulation within the corporate meat-grinder), French filmmakers are simply attuned to the gaps between life and work. "L.627" could be described as the ultimate testimony on work as life. All of this may sound boring, but beauty (and justice) lies in the details. Someone, please release this film on DVD.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #22

Just like an Ipod shuffle....

1. The Apartment- Mid 90's French thriller starring Vincent Cassell and Monica Belluci (yum). Not sure why this title is left in the queue, but I went through a French thriller phase a couple months ago and just forgot about this one.
2. Alexandra's Project- I'm not a fan of the films I've seen from Australian director Rolf de Heer ("Bad Boy Bubby" is truly horrendous), but this one sounds like an interesting piece of aggressive cinema ala Michael Haneke: "Steve (Gary Sweet) arrives home from work anxious to celebrate his birthday with his wife, Alexandra (Helen Buday), and their children. But no body's home, and it isn't a surprise party, or is it? Steve inserts a videotape titled "Play Me" into the VCR and is greeted by birthday wishes from Alexandra and the kids, and then treated to a striptease by his wife. But as the camera pulls back, Steve sees a gun pointed at Alexandra's head."
3. Bad Dreams- 80's horror movie. This is one that was recommended from a friend. Sounds like gory, cheesy fun.
4. $ (Dollars)- 70's comedy caper released on DVD for the first time late last year. Goldie Hawn and Warren Beatty... directed by Richard Brooks. I can remember seeing the VHS cover over and over as a kid.
5. The Ninth Configuration- A title that popped up as a recommendation for me on Netflix. I think I started this long ago and didn't finish it. Regardless, the plot synopsis sounds intriguing and it's directed by William Peter Blatty who's always good for a mind-screw.
6. Zero Focus- Early 60's Japanese obscura from director Yoshitaro Nomura (writer of "Sword of Fury"). The film tells the tale of a woman whose secret causes "disastrous consequences" for those around her. Based on some of the titles in Nomura's oeuvre (such as "Villages of Eight Gravestones" and "The Demon") I look forward to this psychological thriller and introducing myself to his work.
7. Gold Told Me To- "B" movie horror from Larry Cohen about murderous rampages from ordinary citizens who say "Gold told me to" upon their dying confession. I admit, I'm not the most up-to-date on Cohen's films besides "The Stuff" which scarred me as a kid.
8. My Name Is Bruce- Recent Bruce Campbell comedy that has received middling reviews. As an unabashed fan of Campbell and his unique acting delivery, I can't pass this one up. I'm going in with little expectations though.
9. Moscow Elegy- And here begins my look at the films of Russian director Alexandre Sokurov. I've seen "Mother and Son" and "Russian Ark" and wasn't bowled over, yet there's recently been a huge slew of his documentaries released onto DVD by the unique Facets company. This one is a documentary on Tarkovsky. If anyone has any thoughts on other Sokurov films, I'd love to hear them.
10. Six In Paris- Another one of those chic omnibus films pairing the cinematic visions of Rohmer, Godard and others. Released in the mid-60's, I stumbled across this title while looking at something else. If this was recently released, why not more fuss? Or is it that bad?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

10 Reasons For a Tarantino Remake

I lost interest in Tarantino way back in the mid 90's. While I don't deny "Pulp Fiction" and its lightning bolt charge of cinematic richness to indie films, his stuff always feels like an echo of much greater work. Tarantino is a walking encyclopedia of genres, camera angles, and obscure cult films that he distills into current pop smorgasbords. There's nothing wrong with liking that. I simply prefer to gorge on the originals.

So now we have "Inglourious Basterds" [sic] coming out this summer. After recently watching Enzo Castellari's original 1978 film which Tarantino's will be loosely based upon, I can certainly see why the ultimate film geek wants to use this bat-shit piece of Italian obscura as a jumping off point for something.... equally trashy and bat-shit, maybe? Granted, Castellari's film is fun in the sense that you can gain some joy while sitting around at 1am, drinking beer and laughing at the numerous amounts of over-the-top deaths and 70's persuasion. I somehow think Tarantino will strive for something more honorable than that... while ripping off every piece of Sergio Leone, and Sam Fuller along the way.

10 Reasons Why Tarantino Chose to Remake "Inglorious Bastards"

1. It features an African-American with an afro who spouts off ultra cool lines of dialogue whose anachronistic presence is worn out quickly.
2. It gives him a chance to feature a bridge explosion sequence (David Lean anyone?)
3. There's a secondary long haired hippie character who looks like he's been smoking dope all day and discovers a group of Nazi women taking a bath in a stream.
4. Lots of bullets that never hit anyone except the bad guys (to profess his love for Tsui Hark and others)
5. A train derailment sequence. I can just see Tarantino slobbering over this. Honestly, who wouldn't though?
6. A chance to overlay some Ennio Morricone music.
7. A chance to use swipe pans, quick zooms (a true staple of 70's Italian movies) and mounted stationary shots as vehicles drive.
8. Characters who swagger around in Nazi uniforms, dressed like the enemy to sneak behind the enemy line.
9. Castellari's original was essentially a twisted remake of "The Dirty Dozen", one of Tarantino's favorite films.
10. Lots and lots of Nazi deaths. Slow motion Nazi deaths. Quick Nazi deaths. Tortured Nazi deaths.

Friday, March 06, 2009

An Award Just in Time For Oscar Season

Floating around the blog-o-sphere lately has been the Dardos award, something bloggers can bestow upon one another for "Cultural, literary, and personal values in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.""

Bob from the Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind blog selected me as someone to share this award with. The rules include the following:

1. Accept the award by posting it on my blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2. Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

Needless to say, when I started this blog a little over three years ago (and really, had been doing the same thing in newsboard fashion years before that) my intention was the farthest thing from adding cultural or literacy values. It was something to pass the time and a forum of expression for writing that, I feel, simply must be done as a sort of therapy. I know many of you feel the same way. Now, three years on, I feel blessed and full of abundant joy that I've made as many friends from around the country through this crazy thing called a blog and that someone considers me to have added value and fraternity in this seemingly small portion of my day-to-life. And finally (yes I hear the orchestra playing the 'wrap it up' music) I can only add that the daily and weekly humor, insight and intelligence that fills my google reader gives me a smile every time I log into it. Thanks again, Bob!

The five bloggers who I choose to keep this thread of good-will going includes:

1. Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee for often wading into the wilderness of good, bad, and ugly Asian cinema and keeping my Netflix queue full.
2. Chris at his Trashcan Odorous Jr's blog for continually keeping the political talk up.
3. Daniel at Getafilm for inspiring great discussions.
4. Dennis at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule for seeming to be ground zero for internet discussion through his various quizzes and dissection of Los Angeles film events.
5. Sam at The Listening Ear for detailing (and instilling jealousy) in every film event that rolls through Boston with intelligence and passion.

I apologize if any of these five have already been awarded the Dardos. Let the kinship of the blog-o-sphere continue.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Frankenheimer Times Two

Like so many of the directors who made the successful transition from stage and television to film, John Frankenheimer's glory days were in the early to mid-60's. Workmanlike and a professional journeyman, I've long been a Frankenheimer fan. I recently went back and finally caught up with two of his works that seem to have disappeared in that widening gulf of his career in the late 60's and early 70's- that tenuous time between huge success with classics such as "The Manchurian Candidate, "The Train" and "Seconds", and colossal failure in efforts like "The Fixer" (not available on VHS or DVD) the rampantly maligned "Impossible Object" and "99 and 1/4% Dead". Those directors lucky enough to produce films over several decades encounter this mid-season lull, and Frankenheimer was no exception. "The Gypsy Moths" and "The Horsemen", though, stand out as two underrated gems in an otherwise confusing period in his career.

The first, 1969's "The Gypsy Moths" is certainly the more interesting of the two. Starring his long time alter-ego, Burt Lancaster, as a disillusioned skydiver who rolls into a small mid-western town with his band of tricksters and proceeds to bring even more malaise than existed there before, "The Gypsy Moths" is an unusual slice of Hollywood melodrama. Observing Lancaster and his two partners (Gene Hackman as the hot-tempered and financially voracious of the trio and a young Scott Wilson) during the long weekend leading up to the diving show, Lancaster proceeds to begin an affair with bored housewife Deborah Kerr while the trio shrinks into petty fights, jealousy and varying outlooks about their careers. If it weren't for the extended, thrilling 25 minute set-piece showcasing the divers in action, "The Gyspy Moths" would fit nicely into Frankenheimer's early career of stagy melodrama ala Tennesse Williams. Instead, we get a complex and ultimately dark portrait of individuals in stasis. It's an interesting reversal to create a film about skydiving(!) which so fluently charts the characters morose and often middling feelings on life, love and work. The dichotomy is overpowering.

In 1971, Frankenheimer directed "The Horsemen" starring Omar Sharif as an Afghan son of a proud father (Jack Palance, no less) who enters the customary game of "buzkashi", a tradition in this part of the world dating back to Genghis Khan. Similar to polo on horses (yet much more brutal and soul-stretching) Frankenheimer situates the game and Sharif's presence in it as the mighty struggle for something bigger than himself. Indeed, even after losing the game (and breaking his leg), Sharif chooses the long, more difficult road home because his father never dared travel that route. Unlike "The Gypsy Moths", there's very little metaphorical ideas on display. It's a straight redemption tale about a son trying to impress and one-up his father. While the drama never falls flat, what impresses the most in "The Horseman" is Frankenheimer's complete dedication to the logistics of action. Like the long set-piece of sky-diving in "The Gypsy Moths", Frankenheimer places all moral weight of the story on the long buzkashi match in "The Horseman", filming it in agonizing details as bodies and horses pour into each other like a flowing mosh pit. Frankenheimer has always fetishized the car chase (see "Ronin" and especially his three hour car chase movie known as "Grand Prix" where the low angle, first person shots revolutionized how the industry could enliven this weary cliche) and with "The Horsemen", he again relishes the opportunity to display such kinetic action. Muscular has always been a good word to describe the sensibilities of Frankenheimer, and with "The Horseman", he proves that muscularity transcends time and place, from the asphalt jungles of Paris to a sand blasted desert in Afghanistan.

I don't claim that either film is a masterpiece, yet they're both insatiably watchable. On the DVD commentary track of "The Gypsy Moths" (one of the last things he'd do before his death in 2002), Frankenheimer decried the film's lack of place within its time, calling it a misunderstood work (and without really elaborating more). Neither film will overshadow the more prestigious works of his career, but both "The Horsemen" and "The Gypsy Moths" exemplify the 'journeyman ' tag to his name... revealing that no topic was too far removed from his instincts or visual prowess. Now, if only someone will get to work on releasing the other 'lost' films from this same time period, "The Fixer" and "The Extraordinary Seaman" so this Frankenheimer fan will be even more impressed.