Sunday, May 31, 2009

I Still Can't Believe My Eyes

AL West Standings
1. Texas 30 19 .612 0 Won 3
2. Los Angeles 24 24 .500 5.5 Lost 2
3. Seattle 24 26 .480 6.5 Won 3
4. Oakland 18 29 .382 11 Lost 4

Tough loss today against Oakland, yet the Rangers still took 3 out of 4. Winning series in baseball is what matters. But the best record in the AL? The huge dividends the entire pitching staff is showing? The sparkling defense (led by a young, exciting shortstop rookie that will become, in 2-3 years, the face of this franchise I'm sure)? Yep, all these things are contributing. I don't know if it'll last- some of the rickety leanings of the starting rotation are beginning to surface-but damn it's fun watching this team play some great baseball right now. And the talk here right now is that, possibly, the upcoming road trip to the dreaded East Coast against Yankees/Red Sox will be a defining moment in this early year for the Rangers. They continue to get little plugs in the national media here and there, but their underwhelming performance against the Yankees here in Texas last week was not good attention.... now its time to go that wiffle ball park... err new Yankee stadium... and see if the allure the Yanks hold over this team is over. Then Fenway. Then back here and a scrappy Blue Jay team. We'll see. Fingers crossed. Knocking on wood. I think this may be the year Playoff baseball returns to my fair burg and jeez everyone is pumped about this team.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Produced and Abandoned- Part 1

So, thought I'd try a new recurring feature here. The demands for movies not on DVD is growing in chorus everyday. Warners, with its newly announced Archive sessions, is a definite step in the right direction..... if I wanted to shell out $20 bucks apiece, sight unseen, for the 175 or so movies that aren't readily available on disc. But, this is an admirable move on part of Warners to dispense with long-lost titles that may or may not be financially viable on the home video market. And then there's the fact that I've got 118 titles in the Netflix queue ready and waiting to be seen... but the thing that really haunts me (and so many other movie lovers) are the ones we can't get our hands on or shuffle within the queue and have ready at our doorsteps tomorrow. It's excruciating, I know.... and I suppose if this is the biggest of my worries, then I'm doing ok.

So, this on-going and evolving feature is intended to call out some of the movies not on DVD that I desperately want to see for the first time, or again. My hope is that you, fellow readers of this blog, will chime in and give me some of yours as well. While bloggers such as Moon In the Gutter and Fin De Cinema track the various region 2 and obscure 70's gems with much more passion and fervor than I do, I want this to be a group effort. Reply in the comment section and when I create numbers 2 thru whatever in the future, I'll be sure to include those and link your blog. Maybe, over time, we'll have a flexible and fairly authoritative list on par with the now defunct DVD Journal MIA List.

And before the debut list, a couple of quick Not on DVD viewing notes: check out Turner Classic Movies this week where they're showing a Robert Duvall flick called "Badge 373" from the mid 70's (which I've never heard of, but is described as a "Dirty Harry" influenced cop drama) and the 1970 Italian film "Machine Gun McCain" with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. Set the Tivos now!

Produced and Abandoned: Part 1

1. The Outfit (1973)- Robert Duvall film that seems to top most of these lists. There was a screening very late at night on TCM last year, so prints are floating around. No idea what the hold-up is on this one.
2. Wanda Nevada (1979)- Peter Fonda is a very under appreciated director. If one gets the chance, check out his other two features, the excellent western "The Hired Hand" and the definitely 70's sci-fi trip "The Idaho Transfer". This one stars a young Brooke Shields and teams up the young Fonda with father Henry. Reviews haven't been kind, but based on his first two films, I'm willing to give this one a chance if we ever see it.
3. Homicide (1991)- After first becoming aware of the brilliance of David Mamet back in the mid 90's, I tracked down a VHS copy of this film. As usual, its bitter and sharp and a nearly perfect police con that continually keeps you guessing. With virtually every other Mamet film available, no clues as to why this one has remained hidden from the public.
4. Secret Beyond the Door (1948)-I'm just beginning to crack the surface with Fritz Lang films, and the thought that I possibly won't be able to track down a copy of 5 or 6 of his films is disturbing. TCM... where are you?
5. The Deadly Affair (1966)- I went a little obsessive over watching any and all Sidney Lumet films last year. With the exception of a handful that have never been released on VHS or DVD, the one that aggravates the most is his 1966 spy thriller entitled "A Deadly Affair". There are some region 2 copies floating around, but I don't feel like paying $35 plus. Here's hoping a recent retrospective at New York Film Forum will put pressure on certain distribution companies. I understand it may be available online, so I'm trying to find out where. Still, a tangible DVD copy is long overdue.
6. Illustrious Corpses (1976)- Francesco Rosi makes some incredible films. "Hands Over the City" and "Christ Stopped At Eboli" are touchstones of Italian cinema if you ask me. Yet only 5 of his films are available on DVD. This one has been called an enigmatic conspiracy thriller.
7. The Fixer (1968)- John Frankenheimer directed. I've managed to see all of his films except this one from '68 and the martial arts thriller called "The Challenge" in 1982. That movie is available on VHS (for over $50 on Ebay) but no sign of "The Fixer" which seems to follow Frankenheimer's early stage days as a film about a Jewish man kept in captivity for unjust reasons.
8. Illtown (1996)- Faithful readers of this blog know my extreme appreciation for indie director Nick Gomez, and this (his third film) didn't get the best word of mouth. I saw it in an empty theater on opening weekend, and its hazy, elliptical portrait of Florida drug dealers and youth starring Michael Rappaport, Lili Taylor and Tony Danza (yes) made an indelible impression. It deserves to be seen and judged on its own.
9. Alamo Bay (1985)- Another director suffering from just 2 or 3 omissions from his entire body of work (also which includes the early 70's film called "Black Moon" that sounds utterly promising), Louis Malle's early 80's drama stars Ed Harris as a Texas rancher dealing with immigration.
10. The Kremlin Letter (1973)- While Huston's seventies work is not considered his most riveting, this cold war thriller sounds intriguing. With the attention paid to his 1979 film "Wise Blood" from Criterion a few weeks ago and "The Dead" (not on DVD) still found in heavy circulation on TV, maybe this 1973 thriller isn't far off.

Stay tuned for more lists later and again, I welcome your input for future creations.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weekend Roundup


Oblique. Unsettling. Grim. Just a few words to describe this Finnish-Russian horror film that has stayed with me much longer than anticipated. Given a bit of steam last year when it played at the Toronto Film Festival as well as Fantastic Fest, A.J. Annila's psychoanalytical (and metaphorical.. and allegorical) horror tale takes its time, yet it's the type of scary movie that relies on atmosphere and ideas to burrow beneath your skin. Following the end of the 25 year war, a group of Swedish and Russian soldiers are given the task of mapping out a new boundary between the countries in the late 16th century. Eerik (Ville Vertanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen) are brothers. Eerik is having a difficult time dealing with the peace that now exists between the countries. As they venture further into the heavily wooded wilderness, strange occurrences start happening, not the least of which may be tied to the gruesome acts Eerik has committed in the past. A woman keeps re-appearing to Knut from a distance. A dead fox is discovered with its eyes clawed out. Compasses inevitable lead the group into a large swamp area where they encounter a village full of people and a cement sauna that seems to be calling various members of the expedition. All of this is handled with extreme patience and dread by director Annila. The soundtrack is soon overtaken by low droning sounds... the camera often holds on a dark doorway for what feels like unbearable moments... the scares (when they do come) are fast and unnerving. "Sauna" is the type of horror film that rewards the more adventurous viewers. Several conclusions can be drawn from the film, and I'm still mulling over many of its suggested intentions. I've said it before and it's worth repeating: the best horror films are being produced overseas, and "Sauna" is the prime example.

The Girlfriend Experience

I stand amazed at the prolific career of Steven Soderbergh. While not all of his films always hit their mark with me (see this year's "Che"), his ability to sneak through genre, tone and ideas in such a quick way is admirable. His latest venture, "The Girlfriend Experience" is like a Godardian return-to-zero film. It doesn't amount to much as a whole, but on reflection, the ideas he hints at and the nonchalant, glacial performance of porn star Sasha Grey exert a calming power amidst a dazzling visual scheme. Obscuring any real emotions, often filming the speaking person from behind or off-screen (where we simply hear the voice and are forced to place it within the timeline of the narrative), and emphasizing background glass and space instead of his actors...."The Girlfriend Experience" continues Soderbergh's fascination with a person's overall presence in the world rather than hitting point A or B. Playing a high class escort, Grey nails the erotic side of her persona with a more human side, placing the narrative during last year's election when the presidency is oft-mentioned as well as the ensuing economic recession. In fact, for most of the film's initial scenes, we're given glimpses of Grey with her various clients where sex is often side barred and the conversation turns to the worries and anxiety of the downturn. Grey is relegated to the role of mother/psychiatrist, another clear indicator that Soderbergh is much more interested in ideas rather than the gimmicky attraction of "porn star" turned "mainstream actress". Thrown into the mix is a complicated relationship that exists between boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) and Grey. He knows what she does, and seems fine with it. She comes home to him every night. But one client makes Grey see something in herself and feels they connect, and makes plan to go away with him for the weekend. This plot point enters fairly late in the film. The rest of "The Girlfriend Experience" is all hazy context, relaxed conversation, calculated long takes and editing that breaks time into a mosaic rhythm. Soderbergh (who relishes this type of filmmaking) makes it all relevant and incessantly watchable. A very good film.

Angels and Demons

It's surprising how much better a film can be when they drop the mullet from it's leading man. But seriously, Ron Howard's second adaptation of a Dan Brown religious gobbely-gook novel is brisk, well acted and stands to defy the viewer's hip expectations. Just when I thought I had everything figured out, the film shifts its perspective and a new meaning opens up. Tom Hanks reprises his role as Professor Langdon, the uber-scholar on all things mysterious and secret in the world- this time his target is the always interesting idea of the Illuminati- and "Angels and Demons" hones its sights on the scathingly violent power clash that erupts within the Catholic church after the Pope dies. A group of Cardinals (led by the always estimable Armin Mueller Stahl) shuffles about like dons of a mafia family and a hit man runs rampant on the streets of Rome casually and methodically eliminating any carabineri who crosses his path. There are plenty of possible eye-rolling moments, but I found myself swept up in the film's mad dash for ancient statues, fire-and-brimstone-clues and engaging performances. One has to carry a certain affinity for this type of film (aka the avid listener of, say, Coast to Coast nightly) and I dug it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Jon Brion

One of the major regrets from my recent trip to sunny Los Angeles was not taking advantage of the recurring Friday night show that film composer Jon Brion hosts at The Largo. Sometimes a solo show, and other times with unexpected 'friends' playing along, all the chatter I've heard about this event seems like a joyous occasion.

I first came into the musical stylings of Brion through the films of P.T. Anderson. Thematically bold and visually arresting, Anderson's films also contained a pulsating heart and tempo provided by the (often) otherworldly and esoteric sounds of Brion. As a member of several 80's new wave bands such as The Bats and 'Til Tuesday with Aimee Mann, Brion eventually settled for session work. His collaborations with Anderson (which, I feel, hit a high note with 1999's "Magnolia) immediately pushed him into the ranks of the great experimental musical composers. Since then, Brion has gone on to create the soundtracks for Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", Charlie Kaufman's "Synechdoce New York" and mainstream fare such as "Step Brothers".

At times lush... at times bizarre (as in "Punch Drunk Love"), Brion's music seems to key into the subconscious musings of the film's various troubled characters. It seems no surprise that most of Brion's music accompanies characters who live (or retreat) inside their own minds. Brion's music feels like the contemplative tunes that we hum inside our heads to wile away the hours and minutes.

It can be tense and violent:

It can be mournful and steeped in regret:

It can instill melancholy or remind us of home:

And it can certainly feel light on its feet:

But, Brion's best work has to be his latest. Charlie Kaufman's "Synechdoce New York" is a.... heavy film to say the least. Infuriating, dense, playful and supremely in love with its own excess, it lands somewhere between colossal failure and preeminent American art house genius. I still haven't figured it out yet after two viewings. But, on the second viewing (after I knew what was coming) it began to crystallize a bit and I felt something precisely at the point that Philip Seymour Hoffman's unending artistic gesture folds in on itself and his doppelganger (Tom Noonan) re-enacts a fateful moment in Hoffman's own life. What follows the tragedy is extreme humor ("but I didn't actually jump!") and Kaufman strikes at the deep marrow of living, growing old and facing ourselves in the mirror. It's quite moving, supported by the aching tune of Jon Brion that begins to underscore the remainder of the film:

This is a real soundtrack. Music that deepens and enriches the image. I could listen to this theme over and over (and already have). Among film composers, only a select few have the power to elicit distinct emotions separate from the image. It's a great power to have, and Jon Brion exacts this power with each and every film he tackles. And as for the live show in Los Angeles, there will be more trips lined up in the future and hopefully he'll be right there for the next one hundred Friday nights.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Random Images From A California Tourist

And we saw "Star Trek" in the heart of Universal Studios IMAX theater. MUCH better than expected. It opens with a bang and ends with a bang. Two hours just zips by. Now, if we could only do something about that damn cut every second during a fight scene....

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #23

With quite a few days worth of vacation and travel coming up, the movies coming to me will experience a delay. Nonetheless, the next ten titles:

1. Tough Guys Don't Dance- One of writer Norman Mailer's directing gigs starring Ryan O' Neal and Isabella Rossellini. I can't say I've seen any of Mailer's directorial efforts.
2. Sunday Bloody Sunday- John Schlesinger's sexual chess game starring Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson.
3. Spiders- Thanks to some ongoing discussion at The Listening Ear blog about Fritz Lang, I've decide to delve into his work. I've seen the highpoints ("M", Fury") but, sadly, long overdue for everything else he's done. Time to remedy that. Starting towards the beginning, this film from 1919 is "the earliest surviving film of Metropolis director Fritz Lang. The Spiders represents the first two chapters of a planned four-part serial (the final two parts were never made). Armed with a secret map, adventurer Kai Hoog (Carl de Vogt as a silent version of Indiana Jones) battles gangsters and femme fatales to find an Incan treasure. The film, which co-stars Lil Dagover (Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), was thought lost until its 1978 restoration."
4. Chinese Coffee- This is real oddity. Directed by Al Pacino and essentially a two-actor character study (with Jerry Orbach), I've never heard of it. I admired Pacino's other directorial work "Looking For Richard" so it's worth a shot.
5. Blind Mountain- Lang Yi's other "blind" film named "Blind Shaft" was an engrossing side of Chinese life about down and out mine shaft workers. This one is described as "The promise of a good-paying job lures a young Chinese woman into a horrifying predicament in this drama. College student Bai Xuemei (Lu Huang) awakens in a remote village to find she's been sold into a marriage that is slavery in disguise. Her resistance to the repulsive "husband" and his family only results in beatings and rape. With hope running out and allies few, Bai undertakes one final dramatic stand against her oppressors." Li obviously trades in depression!
6. Night Shift- Ron Howard is very hit and miss with me. I really love some things (The Missing", "Parenthood", "Gung Ho" and "The Paper") and then a total "meh" shades so much of his other work ("Frost/Nixon", "A Beautiful Mind", "Ed TV"), but this is early 80's Howard with Michael Keaton. As a kid, I think I watched "Night Shift" on late night TV, but does that really count if it doesn't stick with you?
7. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse- Second Fritz Lang film.
8. Wrong Is Right- This is one of those films you find when searching through an actor's name on Netflix. This one stars Sean Connery and it's described as the following: "Sean Connery (burlesquing his own super-cool image) is a globetrotting television correspondent who uncovers a terrorist plot to sell a nuclear bomb to a Middle Eastern country. The plan has a ripple effect all the way up to the U.S. president, his prime political opponent and a swaggering general who's too cocky for his -- and his country's -- own good. Directed by Richard Brooks, the movie co-stars Rosalind Cash and Robert Conrad."
9. Spies- Third Fritz lang film from late 20's about a banker trying to overthrow the government and the couple trying to stop him.
10. Four Flies on Gray Velvet- Recently released Dario Argento film. I'll watch anything he does.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

One Scene Wonders

Jason Bateman: State of Play

I went into Kevin MacDonald's "State Of Play" with some reservations. Based on an original BBC series (which I really, really liked), here was a movie forced to condense five hours into a slim two. The patience, details, and room to breathe that the miniseries format provides might get lost in translation. And, yes, while the latest Hollywood version does lose some of its steam, it's still a solidly crafted effort that manages to deliver a few sucker punches to the now antiquated world of paper press and generate some nice performances from all involved.

But something with gravity happened in the final third of the film- the two scene brilliance of Jason Bateman as Dominic Foy, a sexually ambiguous, flamboyant and snide PR rep who helps put the pieces in place of the swirling narrative. It's not only a fun performance in the beginning, but Bateman turns on a dime and reveals a character full of rage and guilt that comes seeping out in a dingy motel room. If Viola Davis can garner a supporting actress nomination for two stellar scenes in last year's "Doubt", there's certainly room for a potential nod for Bateman.

The character of Foy served as one of the more intriguing portions of the original series. Hunted down and eventually interviewed by a tabloid reporter (James McAvoy) working the death of Anne Collins independently, the strand served as a diametric collision of methods and ideas between 'real' journalism and trash press. Director MacDonald keeps the emotional power of the reveal intact, but its Bateman who elevates the core of Foy into something genuinely tragic and visceral. In no short words, this is a performance that defines exactly what supporting acting should look like.