Thursday, August 27, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Molly Maguires

From the film's opening ten minutes, I knew I was in for a very under appreciated treat with director Martin Ritt's "The Molly Maguires". The place is Pennsylvania and the time is 1874 when coal mining was the chief employment of the hordes of immigrants who landed on the East Coast and ventured into the more melancholy parts of the country. Aided by James Wong Howe's evocative, textured cinematography, Ritt initiates his film with slow, contemplative zooms as it follows a coal haul out of the mine and up its wooden tracks. A wordless eight minutes pass as the camera finds a group of men diligently working in the shafts below until a whistle blows. Four of the men (including leader of the pack Sean Connery) quickly break apart and set dynamite blocks around the mine before they light the fuse. They then casually wait for their cart ride out of the mine and slowly proceed down a muddy dirt road as Howe's camera faithfully glides in front, leading the way. By this time, the nerves are frazzled at the film's deliberate pace when we know explosions will pierce the air at any moment. It's a great opening that exemplifies the film's patience and devious ambiguity about the Molly Maguire's terrorist attempts borne out of downtrodden treatment.

The "devious ambiguity" mentioned above comes in the form of Pennsylvania detective James McParlan (a steely eyed Richard Burton) who goes undercover in the mines to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. Complicating matters is his own Irish pride. McParlan himself understands the tremendous invisibility of his people in this new land and in some small, unwritten ways, director Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein create a tenuous relationship between McParlan and Jack Kehoe (Connery) as two sides to the same person.. a person that long ago took divergent steps in life but could easily morph into the other's life at any given moment. Two confidently, fleshed out performances, Connery and Burton have never been better. And the scene between them in the end registers with truth and complexity.

Like many films released in the early 70's, there's a residual 60's hangover- a feeling of (sometimes) safe studio production values and status quo stuffiness. Released in 1970, "The Molly Maguires" has a definitively gritty 70's feel. From its greasy, earthy tones (which must have certainly influenced P.T. Anderson for his modern epic "There Will Be Blood") to its warm, candle-lit interiors, there's nothing stuffy about it. The anger seems real. The careful relationship that forms between Burton and landlord Samantha Egger hovers realistically throughout the film. The unease that percolates amongst the Molly Maguires and their eventual acceptance of McParlan ranks with the best of the "undercover cop" themes. It's a well formed, evocative movie that hits every intended mark. My only question- why doesn't this thing get more attention? It certainly deserves it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Produced and Abandoned #3

A few more titles that deserve to see the light of day on region 1 DVD:

1. The Shout (1978)- Available on a region 2 Spanish edition, Jerry Skolimowski's late 70's film sounds eerily impressive: "A madman eccentric convinces a married couple that he can kill by shouting". Skolimowski has scored recently with his latest film, "Four Nights With Anna" on the festival circuit, so maybe some of his older releases will receive some love.
2. Chaotic Ana (2006)- I've heard pretty terrible things about this film, but I absolutely love the work of Spanish director Julio Medem and I'd love to evaluate this work for itself. A few festival screenings have popped up here and there, but other than that, "Chaotic Ana" is MIA.
3. JeTaime, JeTaime (1974)- For me Alain Resnais is hit or miss (deceptive and intriguing with his early stuff, insufferable and smothering with his later ones), yet this mid 70's time travel tale sounds very promising. I'd love to hear thoughts if anyone's seen it.
4. The Landlord (1970)- Hal Ashby has always been an intelligent, low-key director (much like Bob Rafelson) and "The Landlord" is his debut film starring Beau Bridges as a rich kid who buys a house and ends up squabbling with his urban neighbors. Everything I've read about it calls it a smart social comedy.
5. L.627 (1994)- Bertrand Tavernier's police procedural is an outright masterpiece... a film that alternates between the rush of adrenaline involved with police work and the banal idleness spent typing up reports and tracking down snitches. The final shot is an amazing one. With so much of Tavernier's work available on video, this one is a head-scratcher.
6. Sleeping Car Murders (1965)- I really should go back and give "Z" another viewing. This is director Costa-Gavras' debut film and it stars Simone Signoret and Yves Montand as a couple investigating the murder of a girl on an overnight passenger train.
7. Outcast (1962)- I've only seen two Kon Ichikawa films, but they were both searing and powerful works from a Japanese filmmaker who seems to often get overlooked.
8. The Emigrants (1971)- After recently seeing "Everlasting Moments", I'd be very happy if I could see more of Jan Troell's work. Both this film and the sequel, "The New Land" document the settlement of Swedish emigrants in Minnesota. Every description calls them sweeping and epic.
9. The Goalie's Anxiety At the Penalty Kick (1971)- Wim Wenders' debut film. I rented this on VHS years ago and started watching it, but ran out of time before it had to be returned (remember those days?!). When I finally went back for it months later, the tape had been eaten in the machine by another renter. It's one of the very few Wenders' films I've yet to see.
10. Day the Sun Turned Cold (1996)- One of my favorite films from 1996. Directed by little known filmmaker Ho Yim, it's an emotional ride of a young man who burrows into the secrets of his past. Great cinematography and low-key acting make this a must-see. Too bad it's been thirteen years since I've last seen it in an empty theater.

Friday, August 21, 2009


The Cove

Louie Psihoyos' documentary "The Cove" is certainly a bleeding heart agitprop project... but it works and works magnificently. Expounding on the long-standing practice of Japanese dolphin slaughter on a little island known as Taijie, it often takes alot to move me and "The Cove" does it several times. Like a precise thriller or slow-screw-turning horror movie, Psihoyos and his team of animal activists give us tidbits of information- first charming nuggets about the level of intelligence within dolphins and the resurgence of the mammals' popularity after "Flipper" debuted in the 1960's- and then peels back the curtain to reveal a gripping espionage tale as the group attempts to document and record what is really happening in a two acre body of water just out of sight off the island. And when the images do come (something the film builds towards with thunderous propensity), it's a completely unnerving experience that I wasn't prepared for. And while those images and sounds will stay with you for days, the real heart breaker of the story lies in the main examination of Rick O'Barry- the perfect hero if there ever was one. As the dolphin trainer and head "capturer" of the dolphins for the Flipper show, he now dedicates his life to freeing the mammals around the world. The guilt of seeing his dolphins die in captivity strain his face and resonate in his voice. If nothing else, "The Cove" is a tremendous and moving confessional.

In the Loop

It may seem tough to create a roaring comedy about the various digressions and complicated bureaucracies of the policy-making bodies of the English and American government, but director Armando Ianucci's "In the Loop" does just that. I love this type of comedy- fast and furious scripted dialogue that flies at the viewer from all angles and causes one to acutely listen for the joke. As it is, we get brilliant little jokes such as:

"Go and talk to the senator's aid... the boy from The Shining... and see what you can get out of him".


"C'mon... it'll be easy peasy lemon squeezie."

No, it will be difficult, difficult lemon difficult."

There's not a false note in the ensemble cast.

District 9

Seamless, exceptionally creative CGI creatures aside, if there's no heart within the living characters in a certain film, then it fails. And that's exactly the case with Neill Blomkamp's "District 9", a film that cribs so much from previous sci-fi ventures that it feels like a television pilot retread. And when its not counting the odes to yonder days, it features a main character that's beyond sympathy or empathy. "District 9" does reach a few highs, but its message is glib.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On How A Four Star Review Changed My Mind

I suppose it's either the death rattle death of newspapers or a weary reaction to the dog days of summer, but professional film critics are going for the jugular lately. First, there was Jeffrey Wells and his angry post about the slow decline of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" when it comes to selling tickets to the younger film-going demographic. Glenn Kenny and Drew McWeeney then jumped into the fray. Then most recently, Roger Ebert jumped into the ring against film critic Armond White when he trashed (and apparently pissed on) the new fan-boy favorite, "District 9".

On the first point, I saw "The Hurt Locker" over a month ago and didn't utter a peep about it because I seem to be the only one on the planet (besides White of course) who feels it isn't a masterpiece. Solid, yes. Three stars, yes. But it meanders in the end a bit much and does revel in some awfully pedestrian cliches at times. Still, after so many quality films die a quiet death at the box office or find life on home video or in repertory screenings, why is "The Hurt Locker" now the branding iron for such a strong push of the under appreciated? Secondly, on the Ebert/White fracas, let me first say I'm no fan of White. Ever since film criticism from outside my limited scope was made available on the web in the mid 90's, I gravitated towards the New York and Chicago critics- Sarris, Hoberman, Taubin, Rosenbaum and Wilmington. There was something electric about their writings- and certainly the fact that they were pontificating on so many films I wouldn't see for years played into my appreciation. I soon stumbled upon the alternative New York paper, the New York press. While Matt Zoller Seitz quickly became a favorite (and still thrives today), I also discovered Armond White and found him shitting on so many films I liked. A train wreck relationship formed. I despised his reviews, but couldn't stop reading them. A humorous side note: a fellow online buddy who I used to communicate with regularly in New York e-mailed me one day with the lines "I just shared an elevator with your favorite critic." My reply- "Did you kick him in the shins?" The Ebert/White duel has been entertaining, to say the least. And, it will probably get me to the theater to see just what all the fuss is about. I'm sure the production company is grateful for the critical misunderstanding.

All of this to say that, yes, even though "print" is dying, the blogs and twitter and technology (the invisible print, I suppose) still reign supreme and are continuing to evolve and expand a film's reputation through the now omniscient viral means. Sometimes, this is good. I do take a critic's words into consideration- a perfect example being that I'm still very tempted by the slow murmur of positive buzz for David Twohy's "A Perfect Getaway". And, it certainly happened earlier this year when Ebert wrote a virtually singular praise for Alex Proyas' "Knowing", and then followed it up a few days later with an even deeper analysis of the film's conceits on his blog. I read both of them with a "wtf" kind of feeling. I know Ebert loves his sci-fi tales (look no further than his unabashed love for "Dark City"), but this was "Knowing" starring (gasp) Nicholas Cage and released in late February with very little traction. All of this came back as I held the movie in my hand and decided to give it a shot. Admittedly, it's not quite a four star movie, but pretty damn close.... a film full of scary ideas done with just the right touch of humanity to make the characters somebody you root for and with one helluva nice (uncompromising) ending that certainly made the test audiences squirm in their seats.

Apocalypse movies rarely feature this many strong ideas. The room for large scale disaster is firmly intact (especially in one outstanding set-piece that follows Cage through a fresh plane crash with one long unbroken steadicam shot), but its the collision of philosophical gestures and human sacrifice that really make "Knowing" a cut above the rest. Proyas' predilection for dark, shadowy figures do turn up here with an increasingly creepy frequency. Add a dash of mysticism and some 'un-blockbusterly' third act surprises, and one gets a very satisfying movie that I might have overlooked if it weren't for the fearless critique by Roger Ebert. I suppose Armond White has the same effect for someone else when they decide to rent "Death Race". I'll still read all the above mentioned critics... I'll just pay much closer attention to some.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Outfit

Through the very generous donations of several readers of this blog from around the country, I've been able to finally glimpse some of the movies featured in my recent Produced and Abandoned posts. That's been part of the initially unimaginable fun of doing this type of thing... the community and camaraderie that has developed from it. I thank everyone for this. And it's exactly this same generosity that offered me the chance to finally see John Flynn's hard-nosed 1973 film, "The Outfit"- a film that coincidentally is being shown on the big screen for the first time in ages. Is a DVD release in the works?

Based on a novel by great crime writer Donald Westlake, "The Outfit" can easily be read as yet another grimy variation on the loner anti-hero... a man so enraged or hell-bent on a single minded quest that the whole film turns into a systematic deconstruction of the underworld. In "Point Blank", it was Lee Marvin. There was Mel Gibson in "Payback". And in "The Outfit" it's Robert Duvall. After the almost wordless execution killing of his brother in the opening few minutes, Earl (Duvall) is released from prison and quickly hooks up with old girlfriend Bett (Karen Black). There begins a road trip across the vacant Midwest plains as Earl finds old chum Cody (Joe Don Baker) and the pair begin to exact their revenge on the mob system that purportedly killed his brother. Their targets, though, are not deadly, but striking the Syndicate (a favorite term from Westlake that seems to imply an expansive network of evil) where it really hurts- their wallets. Before long, director Flynn dashes all hopes that "The Outfit" will be an in-depth character study of these particular good-bad guys. As the pair knocks off backroom money laundering spot after another, "The Outfit" morphs into an unrelenting document of non-descript offices that Earl and Cody hold-up. The point- which comes through as loudly as Fritz Lang's German films- is that evil is pervasive and secretly turning the wheels of every office building across the country. Yet it's done with such quiet calculation and memorably mean faces (Timothy Carey especially) that "The Outfit" succeeds by doing very little. And I haven't even mentioned the especially gruff performance by Robert Ryan as the mob boss who sees the pair turn his mansion upside down in a Tony Montana-like finale. Finally seeing "The Outfit" was worth the wait.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It Pains Me To Say It....

... but Judd Apatow's "Funny People" is a mis-fire from a director that I've grown to appreciate over the last few years. Over-long, over-wrought and completely devoid of the substantial honesty built between the characters in "Knocked Up", "Funny People" feels like a decent movie stretched to ponderous proportions. I've read alot lately about how this is the film where Apatow grows up, and I say that was "Knocked Up". The quotient of dick and fart jokes is still relatively high, but there was something quite moving about the car ride between Heigel and Rogen as they drive into an adult world where nothing will be the same. There was great humanity in the way Leslie Mann spouts out how old she feels after being denied entrance to a night club- and yes Mann is good here with my crush firmly intact, but the relationship between her and Adam Sandler doesn't reach the harmonious connection it strives for. And, where the interaction between Rogen, Hill and Segal appeared as lively and familiar banter between old friends, the Rogen, Hill, Schwartman combo feels mean and vapid in "Funny People".

Perhaps it's my strong aversion to Sandler when he attempts to tackle a "serious" role ("Punch Drunk Love" exempt since it's so bat-shit crazy), but I didn't feel anything for his George Simmons. The endless parade of self-indulgent cameos didn't help either. I'll stop now. Here's hoping Apatow bounces back and reigns in his excesses for the next comedy.

Monday, August 03, 2009

DVD Shout Out: The Education of Charlie Banks

Most of the energy surrounding "The Education of Charlie Banks" will be focused on the fact that it's directed by Fred Durst. Yes, that Fred Durst- the singer of Limp Bizkit fame who once echoed immortal and sage lines such as "I did it all for the nookie, so you can take that cookie, and stick it up your ass." Regardless of that, "The Education of Charlie Banks" is still a very good movie about class differences while managing to heighten and draw out the subtle tension between Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg) and old school bully/friend Mick (Jason Ritter, son of John).

The story- one that could have stumbled into cliche territory yet remains fresh and original- begins sometime in the 1970's in Greenwich village as the aforementioned Charlie meets bad-boy Mick. Soon after seeing Mick beat a fellow student within an inch of his life, the bookish and morally upright Charlie tells the cops on Mick. He soon after recants his admission. While at college several years later, Mick shows up and slowly insinuates himself back into Charlie's life, taking up with the girl he likes and generally upending Charlie's literate and wealthy circle of friends. The pressing question (and one that writer Peter Elkoff and director Durst expand to terrifying lengths during Mick's re-occurrence at the Ivy League school) is whether Mick is aware of Charlie's "rat" status or not. Still, the impending collision between Charlie and Mick is handled with confidence, allowing "The Education of Charlie Banks" to work itself out as a low key character study.

As Charlie, Eisenberg is quickly becoming typecast as the 'new nebbish'. He does seem tailor made for the role ever since "The Squid and the Whale", but its Jason Ritter who really lifts the film. Full of charisma and taking some scenes into completely unexpected territory, he has massive potential. As for Durst the filmmaker, I suppose it would be unfair to say he does nothing to screw up the proceedings. Simply shot and cleanly edited, there are a few recognizable moments of talent behind the camera.... one of them being a slow zoom into the outside of a library as Charlie runs inside, looking for the girl he has a crush on as the camera stays outside, continuing its slow zoom until he re-emerges and runs off screen. Not only is it a visual flourish that's unique, but it preserves the sense of desperate longing surely felt by Banks. Overall, "The Education of Charlie Banks" is a great surprise.