Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quick Capsules

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” takes on an incredibly dull subject- mid west chemical company involved in possible price fixing- and throws in loose comedic swipes with a toupeed and slightly chunky Matt Damon doing his best to shed any Jason Bourne stereotypes. Unfortunately, not a whole lot livens this movie up. Retro music is keyed at the right moments and stream of conscience voice overs lull the viewer into a state of perplexity. Gradually, “The Informant!” shows us that our main character (though seemingly doing the right thing and turning government informer) is just as corrupt and maddening as the system of greed and negligent conduct he’s trying to extinguish. Soderbergh is a director I highly admire. On paper, his other film this year titled “The Girlfriend Experience” should have been the real clunker. Instead, that film’s visual experimentation and abstract ideas run circles around the more polished and safe “The Informant!”.

Sin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” is a vibrant debut film. Full of haunting images both violent and humble, Fukunaga’s camera eeks out beauty in the most unexpected places- such as the shadowy figures of people lumbering on a top of a train, the way blood darkens the water around a body and especially the final image of a young girl (Paulina Gaitan) bathed in sunlight as she talks on a pay phone. Taking as his protagonist a dead-head gang member who runs from his past and finds redemption in the sweetness of a young girl “Sin Nombre” makes emotional leaps with little effort, mainly due to the magnetic performances of its two leads. This guy’s going to be good.

The Burning Plain

Early on in Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain”, I begin to wish for less of his non-linear storytelling style. But after the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, the film would probably lose some impact if told traditionally. Charlize Theron is a damaged woman living in Portland. A man (Jose Yazpick) seems to be following her. In a more sunny environment, Kim Basinger is having an affair with Mexican Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). Her daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) suspects the worst. Frenetic editing and jumbled time lines round out Arriaga’s gloomy parable of crossed generations and mixed culture attractions. And even though Arriaga relies on the heavy handed usage of things like scars, “The Burning Plain” does succeed as another potpourri of crashing story lines and damaged relationships- something he’s become very comfortable with after films like “21 Grams”, “The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada” and “Babel”.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Long, Strange, Fun Trip

Image courtesy of Tony Gutierrez posted at
Lone Star Ball.

Ask any fan around here, and they'll tell you the '09 Rangers season was fun and electric, even if they did miss the playoffs due to some poor play in September. Until then, they gave the Angels and Red Sox some tense moments. Looking forward to next year, it's hard not to be excited about their prospects. Cheers, Rangers!

World Series prediction: Dodgers beat Yankees in seven.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dead and Not So Buried: Jennifer's Body and Other Flesheaters

I don't usually flock to the theater when a movie as maligned as "Jennifer's Body" opens up. But, some good word of mouth from fellow blogger and friend Chris, who consistently burrows through the good and bad horror movies with subversive tastes, called me and said I had to see this film. I didn't hesitate, and you know, "Jennifer's Body" is a helluva good time.

Directed by Karyn Kusama from a script by Diablo Cody, alot of the seemingly misanthropic feelings against "Jennifer's Body" seems to revel in the fact that it's not a very scary movie. Having only seen the previews that seemed to convey the outright hotness of lead star Megan Fox over any other genre (since, yes, nowadays lady hotness is a genre unto itself) I went into the film with very little expectations of gore, scares or social commentary. As a clean slate, the film works very well. After opposing vehemently to the cutesy triteness of Cody's previous Oscar winning script "Juno" (please... really... a 15 year old girl is going to love Mott the Hoople!?), her sense of amusing one-liners and "what's up, monistat" sayings spin a uniquely humorous staccato speak and response in the (somewhat) vapid world of high school. In short, Fox and co-star Amanda Seyfried toss these pieces of dialogue out with sincere believability. I also laughed my ass off (out loud by the way since I was the only one in the theater) when Fox, levitating off the ground with rage in her eyes, calls Seyfried a "playa hater". The lasting effects of playful horror cult cinema- whether it be a terrifying take on high school menstruation in "Carrie" or lurid soap opera murder in "Heathers"- are present in "Jennifer's Body". Now, I'm certainly not comparing Kusama's work to either of those films right now. But, in a decade or so, I could easily see "Jennifer's Body" being rediscovered as an overlooked good time with nothing but fun in mind. And maybe getting a rise out of its few violent moments of flesh-eating by uber hottie Megan Fox.

A few notches down the gross-out meter sits Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel's "Deadgirl". Poised with none of the tongue-in-cheek looseness of "Jennifer's Body", this is a very ugly film both visually and tonally. The idea- that two high school guys (already on the fringe of society) break into an old mental hospital and find a naked girl chained to the table in a secret room... and then keep her there for their own sexual satisfaction!- is startlingly original but repugnant due to the shallow script and D level acting of its no name stars. Imagine Larry Clark dipping into the waters of "Saw" and you get a slight sense of "Deadgirl's" empty high school wasteland. The two misunderstood loners, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan), trade braindead conversations while having moments of moral clarity over their chained sex toy. School jocks are brought into the situation. Then we learn that the deadgirl was probably chained there for a reason since her bites turn anyone into a similar zombie. Highly regarded at last year's Fantastic Fest, "Deadgirl" is most likely a film only appreciated at horror film festivals long after the chimes strike midnight. Watching it on a purely sober level without the ebb and flow of an eager audience, it amounts to very little more than another tepid attempt to cash in on the graphic success of human suffering ala torture porn. It also has the chutzpah to tease us with a sequel in the final frame. While I'll jump at the chance to see "Jennifer's Body" again (and program it for viewings at any upcoming parties or willing friends), the thought of seeing "Deadgirl" in another incarnation is soul-crushing and depressing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Random Halloween Suggestion

You know, for some reason this is my favorite time of the year. A cold front blew through last night, temps aren't supposed to get past 75 or so for the next few days (with lows in the upper 50's), and the season is clearly changing. That means fall prestige pictures, earlier sun sets and of course, Halloween. Now until then, expect a few random suggestions from me. First up, Lamberto's Bava insanely gory and quite creepy zombie-movie-to-end-all-zombie-movies called "Demons". It's meta-meta (using as its setting a huge movie theater) and so much fun to watch. It'll make any horror movie line-up a blast. Not for the squemish, though. Categorize this one as balls-out fun.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Great St Louis Bank Robbery

The direct cinematic lineage of Michael Mann and Jean Pierre Melville can be found in one little known film from 1959 called "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery". Made a few years before Melville created an international splash with films like "Le Doulos" and "Second Breath" and decades before Michael Mann stepped behind a camera, John Stix's "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" takes as its main themes some very familiar touchstones of these two varied filmmakers- the consummate career criminal obsessed with detail, the fatal relationship with a woman and brazen masculinity. It's a shame that director John Stix didn't get the chance to accumulate these themes and form the same type of stylistically riveting career as Mann or Melville.

"The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" is a genuinely fatalistic enterprise. The very opening scene, where four men meet in a cold park, is doomed from the outset as their buried resentments, jealousy and inexperience (in the case of college drop out wheelman Steve McQueen in only his second film role) comes boiling to the surface. Add to the mixture an almost repressed homosexuality in ring leader Egan's eyes (Crahan Denton) as he tries to steer the group away from any outside influences (women namely) and judiciously go over every detail of the robbery and one soon gets the idea that we're watching walking corpses going through the motion. The tension comes in the thought of who will survive, if anyone. In essence, "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" is 80 minutes of careful preparation and ten minutes of abrupt violence during the bank robbery. Outside of the bank robbery itself, there are several scenes in "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" that feel revelatory for 1959. The long shot on Egan as he monologues about the death of his mother... an especially terse scene with McQueen's ex-girlfriend as the crew find out she may know about the robbery... and the aforementioned final bank robbery in which Stix precisely frames and edits the robbery with calm detail, giving precedence to the shadows that steel bars create on the ground or the tormented God shot as McQueen terrorizes a husband and wife. And, the fact that actual police officers and detectives involved in the real-life incident reprised their roles is even more revealing to the film's search for the authentic.

Stix, a Julliard film teacher and director of numerous Broadway plays, never returned to film after "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery". Perhaps because he was born in St. Louis and wanted to share some hometown flavor with the movie-going public, his debut film struck lightning in a bottle. I would've loved to see what else he could do with the cinematic medium, and especially with the gray-skied and fedora'd criminals who slink beneath the surface and patiently study until they strike. If "The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery" is any indication of his intelligence, we've all missed some great stuff.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #25

Arriving at my door soon (and foreign heavy this time around):

1. It's All About Love- Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterburg's futuristic tale starring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes. No idea on this one, but it sounds promising.
2. Fuzz- One of the more entertaining nicknames for our good 'ol boys in blue, "Fuzz" stars Burt Reynolds. It reads like pure 70's schlock- Reynolds trying to stop Yul Brenner from blowing up the city- and right up my alley.
3. Maitresse- Barbat Schroeder's early 70's film with Gerard Depardieu. You know, Scroeder has never really been on my radar, but looking over his films, there are lots of interesting titles there. I hope to see more in the future.
4. A Secret- French director Claude Miller's drama about "a boy in post-World War II Paris who stumbles upon a mysterious toy in the attic, exposing his family's secret dark past and how it survived Nazi atrocities."
5. Sukiyaki Western Django- The ever prodigious Takashi Miike's weird sounding western (?) from a couple years ago. I expect insane things.
6. In July- Directed by one of my favorite modern filmmakers, Fatih Akin, I don't know how I missed this film made right before his stunning 2006 film, "Head-On". "In July" promises more of Akin's free-floating, star crossed lover theme as a professor and street vendor cross paths and fall in love.
7. Songs From the Second Floor- I gave this film a shot a few years ago, and couldn't make it through it. Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson is being lauded in many circles, so I thought maybe the time was right for a revisit.
8. Smiley's People (3 discs)- My appetite for spy films is insatiable, so while searching through endless user lists and recommendations on Netflix, I came upon this early 80's TV series starring Alec Guiness as a spy brought out of retirement to catch a criminal (Patrick Stewart). Based on a John Le Carre novel. If you've seen it, I'd love to hear your thoughts. British mini-series are hit and miss... some dry beyond belief and some terrific.
9. Danton- Andrzej Wadja's 80's epic about the life of two French Revolution fighters and the aftermath. I recently saw Wadja's "Katyn", which proves the old master hasn't lost it (including a stunning final ten minutes) and his 1960 film "Ashes and Diamonds" still reigns as one of my first and most influential introductions to foreign cinema. Plus, its Criterion.
10. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban- Ok, full disclosure. Until a month or so ago, I'd never cared to see any of these films. Then I caught the first one on TV and found it to be immensely entertaining commercial fare. Part Two, with giant spiders and all, proved to be even darker and more mature. I hear this one is even darker. I really need to get over my bias for "children" movies like this and Pixar stuff (which I've only seen the Toy Story movies). I think I may be missing some really good stuff.

Monday, September 07, 2009

60's Reverie

Both in music and on film, there’s something definitely happening here. Between the pop-psychedelic sounds of bands such as Animal Collective (Beach Boys meets Pink Floyd) and the more straight-forward 60’s tinged rock of Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, Camera Obscura and King Khan, the 60’s are in full swing and littering our modern cultural landscape. Two recent films, “Taking Woodstock” and “Inglourious Basterds”, also recall the swinging 60’s in tone and tongue-in-cheek ‘hipness‘. I guess the 70’s retro hangover is finished and we’ve all gone hurtling back to peace and love. Or did all of this begin in the late 90’s when tie-dye and the peace symbol made a roaring comeback?

Of the two films mentioned, Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is the direct link to the 1960’s. Tackling the mammoth cultural event that was Woodstock in 1969, Lee’s film starts out large and scatter shot, then gently narrows it focus on the nuclear family and the generational gap that divides young Elliot (Demetri Martin) and his Jewish-immigrant parents played by (an over-the-top) Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman. At times kitschy and wholly unbelievable, Elliot is little more than a cypher of his times. Due to the placement of his parent’s dilapidated motel in upstate New York and his own role as the head of the Chamber of Commerce, he is the catalyst for a group of hippies being displaced in town after town to put together their live concert. Motivated partly out of economic hardships and mostly out of Elliot’s own discomfort with his sexuality, Woodstock is finally given a home just two miles from him. History is condensed and tweaked- for example in one short walk to the festival, Elliot (and the audience) are given visuals of a guy holding up a sign that says “Please show up Bon Dylan”, the three nuns who flash a peace symbol for a camera, and a cop with a flower placed gently into the visor of his helmet. All the iconic images of three days of peace and music are given lip service in a 90 second single take. All that’s left is for Elliot to walk by the young couple wrapped up in a blue blanket. Regardless of Lee and screenwriter James Schamus’ commercialised ploy to wrap everything into a tidy, uncomplicated bow, “Taking Woodstock” does work as a film though.

As the film’s focus shifts away from Woodstock to the odd coming of age of Elliot, it elicits some honest emotion, especially in one scene between Martin and his father. Liev Schreiber, in a role as a sort of transvestite guardian angel, adds immense generosity in a role that could have easily been played for straight laughs throughout. Even though “Taking Woodstock” wants to be a modern time capsule for the late 60’s (which, honestly, the original “Woodstock” documentary already encapsulates) it should mostly be remembered as yet another strong Ang Lee character piece about a young man struggling with his own identity.

Less successful in its attempts to mar the genres, sounds and sensibilities of the 1960's is another hollow pastiche by Quentin Tarantino. Yes, even though the film does take place during World War 2, the film’s magnificent opening (which it never quite recovers from) distinctly places us in the world of Sergio Leone and his spaghetti westerns. And the finale (the second strongest portion of the movie) plays out like a fevered exploitation film that would feel right at home in the canon of Jesus Franco. It’s just everything else in the middle that wears out its welcome. Tarantino is obviously in love with the written word, but as in “Deathproof”, it’s his bloated screenplay that sucks the life away from any cinematic momentum in “Inglourious Basterds”. In his vain attempts to transpose the exploitative aspects of 60’s cinema (scribbled, crashing opening titles and vintage Universal logo) there’s no real zap of originality. I have no doubt that Tarantino has something truly unique in him, and when he creates that film- a film completely free of the pseudo homage and lip service to every worn out/wacko VHS movie he watched back in that Los Angeles video store- then it’ll really be a trailblazer. But, until then, “Inglourious Basterds” will remain a hazy throwback to the 60’s that marginally entertains.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Top 5 List: Great Film Scores Post '90

5. Public Enemies (2009 dir. Michael Mann/Elliot Rosenthal composer)

Sure, this was released just a few months ago, but the soundtrack has already become a staple spin on my Ipod. Mann has always had a great predilection for sweeping, epic music with a bit of electronica thrown in by Moby or Mogwai for good measure... and with "Public Enemies", he turs the spotlight back onto his regular composer, Elliot Rosenthal who churns out a terrific score.

4. 25th Hour (2002 dir. Spike Lee/composer Terence Blanchard)

Another film that benefits from a lasting relationship between director and composer, Blanchard continually brings something moving and fresh to every Lee film. Working from a very emotional place, Blanchard manages to create a genuinely moving companion to the film's story without sounding maudlin or manipulative.

3. Wonderland (1999, dir. Michael Winterbottom/Michael Nyman composer)

The next two slots belong to the same composer- Brit Michael Nyman- who, for a while, seemed to have his hand in just about everything. From his eclectic scores to many Peter Greenaway films to his more commercial vehicles (such as "The Piano") in the 90's, Nyman is a real adventurer. Alot of his pieces sound similiar and there's a striking avant garde experimentation that's downright exciting. In his collaborations with Michael Winterbottom, Nyman strikes an especially resounding chord in "Wonderland", shaping theme music for each charatcer in this merry-go-round group as they deal with life, love and family.

2. Gattaca (1997, dir. Andrew Niccol/Michael Nyman composer)

Seeing "Gattaca" in a sparsely attended theater in late '96 after reading the rave reviewed applied by critic Andrew Sarris, I felt I was in the presence of young greatness. Well, director Andrew Niccol hasn't lived up to those lofty expectations, but Nyman's soundtrack does. Elegant, mournful and perfect for the pristine environment of the movie, it also elevates the emotions as Ethan Hawke finally lifts off from Earth.

1. Requiem For a Dream (2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky/Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet)

Long before this piece of music became the spliced together sound for every trailer or forthcoming movie clip, it was a heartbreaking wall of music- simple, refined, then suddenly violent. I could listen to it over and over.... if only it didn't depress me so much. Still, any piece of music that can instill that much power has gotta be doing something right.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why Being A Cinephile (and blogger) Matters

Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre recently tagged me for one of these crazy memes going around. The question, initially posed at Cinema Styles is why does being a cinephile matter? Not a Democrat, or Republican, or liberal... but the only thing that really seems to give me calm these days- a lover of movies. A few things I've learned in the past 3 years since starting this humble little word space:

1. My love for movies like "Laws of Gravity" or "Wonderland" continues to grow each and every time I recommend it to someone on a blog.

2. The world is a supremely connected place. I've communicated with friends far and wide.... been given previously unavailable movies out of the goodness of a cinephile's own heart.... and discovered a few titles here and there. Conversely, my Netflix queue will probably never get below 200.

3. I love the Pandora's box that opens up through blogs. One site leads to another... and another that invests its time only in obscure 70's VHS box covers... and another dedicated solely to reviewing spy films.... and yet another that features an interview with some obscure 60's character actor. The universe is endless with possibilities.

4. Sometimes, a blogger says (and means) more in 100 words than any film critic with 2000 words can muster.

5. And, most importantly, its just nice to connect with so many people on a basic level of shared enthusiasm and divergent viewpoints. Whether the blogs go the way of the old newsboards or not, I don't know. But for right now, they're here and they matter to me.