Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hi Defness: Heat

If any filmmaker was destined for HD, it's Michael Mann. I can remember not understanding the complaints leveled against him when he went completely Hi-def with "Collateral", "Miami Vice" and (most recently) "Public Enemies". People who did not see these films shown on a digital projector were certainly missing the visual boat. Mann is a filmmaker who uses the fluorescent city to his extreme advantage. The aerial scene in "Heat" (pictured below) as the camera begins on a long shot of downtown Los Angeles at night, then slowly arches downward to track one lone van crawling through the industrial section of town, is a feast of light and dark. Until watching it on Blu Ray over the weekend- when I let out an 'oh my god' after seeing how much detail is present in the transfer- I'd never realized the glorious potentials of Blu Ray. Granted, my HD-DVD choice about 15 months ago was the wrong one, but Blu Ray seems to trump even that format in clarity and sound. I certainly don't remember my sparse copies of HD-DVD movies looking/sounding this terrific.

So back to the aforementioned scene. It's the little details that Blu Ray accentuates in "Heat". Only having seen this film on standard copies before, the array of colors picked up at night is startling. As the van moves down the street, one can see green lights in certain doorways and blue lights in other portions of the frame. Whereas the image before had been flat, this HD transfer vividly calls out the obscured lighting that (probably) had no intention of being noticed before. For a film geek such as myself that revels in the details, I'm in cinematic heaven.

The other noticeable difference in the Blu Ray version of "Heat" is the way this new format defines the human body. In the picture above, as Det. Hannah (Pacino) talks on the phone against the backdrop of downtown Los Angeles, his figure looks and feels set apart from the background.... something that standard DVD is just unable to differentiate. The shadow of Pacino's body (and every other actor) flows into the rest of the image. In HD, depth is revelatory. For the 3rd time, "Heat" has served as my introductory choice for a new technology. This time, my anticipation is matched by pristine quality. I may never leave the couch again.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Landfall of Lists

Not only will us bloggers get the chance to dole out our annual best of the year lists in a couple months, but there's something called a decade that's about to end as well. Some folks are getting a head start with this type of thing here and here. While I'm not quite ready to compile those just yet, I am having fun at The Auteurs on the message boards throwing around music lists. With nothing more than a cursory flip through my cd's and the ones that jump out at me immediately, I listed 25 albums from the decade that have given me the most pleasure. Listed below for discussion.

A few mentions, after the first 5 or 6, the rest are devoid of any real order:

1. Radiohead “Kid A”
2. Mars Volta “Francis the Mute”
3. Sigur Ros “Takk”
4. Broken Social Scene “You Forgot It In People”
5. The National “Alligator”
6. Radiohead “Hail To the Thief”
7. The Twilight Singers “She Loves You”
8. Mars Volta “DeLoused in the Crematorium”
9. A Silver Mt. Zion “He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms”
10. Mogwai “Mr. Beast”
11. DeVotchKa "A Mad and Faithful Telling"
12. Beirut “March of the Zapotec/Real People”
13. Explosions In the Sky “How Sudden, Innocence”
14. Explosions In the Sky “All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone”
15. M83 “Saturdays=Youth”
16. The Antlers “Hospice”
17. Radiohead “In Rainbows”
18. Modest Mouse “Good News For People...”
19. Smile, Smile “Blue Roses”
20. Arcade Fire “Funeral”
21. The Appleseed Cast “Peregrine”
22. Black Tie Dynasty “This Stays Between Us”
23. Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova “Once” soundtrack
24. Interpol “Turn On the Bright Lights”
25. Beck “Sea Change”

Even after typing this, I started to squirm. Is Sigur Ros "Takk" really better than their others? Why did I leave the latest from Mars Volta off the list, which I feel towers over a few of their other albums? Shit.. I completely forgot to list anything by The Strokes, The Killers, Tom Waits or My Morning Jacket or Muse. If my decade film list is going to be just as difficult, I don't know if I even have the energy to begin!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

DVD Shout Out: Eye In the Sky

Remember how great the scenes of Gene Hackman nonchalantly tailing suspected drug lord Fernando Rey were in "The French Connection"? Stretch that tension out to 90 minutes and one gets the sense of excitement conveyed by Nai Hoi Yau's 2008 policier, "Eye In the Sky". With a stripped down premise- a group of elite detectives whose job it becomes to perform surveillance on a group of suspected jewelry thieves- Yau's little seen film is full of great moments. Our entrance to this technologically savvy and intelligent world of body language and casual street tactics lies in the role of newbie Kate Tsui as she's promoted to the surveillance unit, led by father-figure Simon Yam. Along the way, we understand how important it is to observe clothing and street names as well as the understated hand movements that signals danger to fellow police officers. "Eye In the Sky" is just as educational as it is entertaining. The target of the investigation is master thief Chan (Tony Leung), whose just as efficient and well-versed in his chosen trade (crime) as the cops trying to track him. But the real crux of the film lies in the relationship between Tsui and Yam. He's tough one moment because she needs to learn the job, then gentle the next (especially in a riveting moment when he cajoles his tired, bored surveillance crew with a long joke through their hidden earpieces).

Yau, longtime screenwriter and collaborator with Johnny To, who produced this film, evidently learned his craft from the best as well. Filmed with simple setups and an eye for sharp editing that doesn't jumble the images up, allowing the viewer to completely understand where everyone is in relation to their prey, "Eye In the Sky" fits neatly into the Milkiway/Johnny To subsection of compact, energetic and consistently well executed genre films.

Friday, November 20, 2009

An Appreciation: Fritz Lang

A few months in the making. Enjoy.

Spiders (1919) **½ - Third film from Lang and the first surviving one. While the story is pure comic book serial (something about an Indiana Jones type character getting caught up in Peruvian gold mountains and ocean sirens) the basic ideas that Lang would toy with throughout the rest of his career are present- a secret group of powerful men and women who try to bring about death and destruction, the innocent and good people caught in the middle and a strong eye for expressionistic visuals.

Destiny (1921) *** - Here Lang's attention to the striking visual image begins to take shape, especially in the stark visage of Death wandering into a small town. Melodramatic to its core, I also understand this is the prototype for so many films.... its 1921 for crying out loud! A woman pleads for the life of her lover taken by Death and he tells her three stories, tempting that if love rules, she can have her lover back. The ending reaches magical proportions and it's easy to see why so many modern filmmakers have cited this film as a major influence.

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) ** - I completely understand this film's place in history, but at four hours and ten minutes it can be a crushing bore. As usual in the Lang canon, there are two or three riveting set-pieces, but the film feels out of control and confused at times. As later proven by the subsequent sequel ("The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse") ten years later, Lang can create a Mabuse film that reaches perfection at half the running time.

Metropolis (1927) ***½ - German expressionism meets dystopia in Lang’s well-renowned science fiction classic. Imitated many years later from a wide variety of filmmakers including the Coen Brothers, Joe Dante and just about every proceeding dystopian sci-fi flick, it’s a film that’s certainly stood the test of time. Created as an allegory of its time- notice the communistic uniforms worn by everyone in the film- “Metroplis” is also still a dazzling display of storytelling and heart.

Spies (1928) **½ - If there’s one theme that Lang enthusiastically embraced in his early filmmaking career, it was the idea of a pervasive evil corrupting all walks of life. With Spies, Rudolph Klein-Roegg again takes on the Mabuse-like role of a bank owner secretly pulling the strings to an underworld of criminal activity. As the title implies, there are double and triple crosses involving the retrieval of a document signed by the Japanese. Not a completely successful film but the visual tropes (doors, alleys and spatial divisions) clearly become pivotal.

Woman In the Moon (1928) ***½ - Though it takes its time getting to the actual moon, Lang’s 3 hour epic about the collision of ideas and love in space is still a remarkably good early sci-fi affair… and one that you rarely hear mentioned. It features a wonderful closing moment as well.

M (1931) **** - An applauded outright masterpiece, “M” was Lang’s first sound film and probably a beneficial recipient of this transition. Visually, “M” is striking- the quiet pans across the faces of a mob, the long shots that take advantage of the newly created dolly shots- it all feels experimental but perfect. And while text titles were they key to relaying information in his previous silent films, Lang takes advantage of that style and creates images disassociated from sound. For example, as Detective Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) reads the possible summation of the mob’s attempts to break into an office building, Lang intersperses the destruction and devastation as he reads the letter. For 1931, this all feels like especially heady stuff. And then there’s the chilling performance of Peter Lorre as the pedophile child killer… and that final 20 minutes as he pleads for his life in front of a ‘kangaroo court’ that’s raw and electric in its sheer emotion. I really can’t imagine a more perfect film.

Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) **** - Third film in the Mabuse series, this one concentrates on the stolen identities and cribbed maniacal ideas of the Doctor as he's locked away in a mental institution. There are two or three brilliantly conceived set pieces here- one of them an assassination conducted on the street in traffic and the other an escape from a locked room that Stuart Rosenberg cribbed for his own film, "The Drowning Pool" years later. And, Mabuse's (and Lang's) deranged thoughts about chaos and an "empire of crime" are even more relevant today as they pop up in another crime blockbuster named "The Dark Knight". I think someone owes Fritz Lang lip service as the real creator of the Joker and his madcap plans for domination. A truly trend-setting film that hasn't lost its spell in over 70 years.

Liliom (1934) *1/2- Escaping Germany and finding work in France, Lang‘s “Liliom” feels like a film borne out of chaos and uncertainty… and I don’t mean that in a good way. After a series of dynamic films, this one (following an abusive cad played by Charles Boyer) looks flat and uninspired. In addition, its hard to feel anything for the Boyer character as he wanders away from a good, loving relationship to a life of petty crime. The third act- which replays a theme from his earlier silent films such as “Destiny”- ventures wobbly into fantasy territory as Liliom pleads for his life in front of a heavenly judge. For such an abrupt genre shift, there’s little empathy built for the lead character which ultimately makes “Liliom” the director’s first real bomb.

Fury (1936) ** 1/2- Lang’s first American film, and his feet are put to the fire immediately with a cast that includes Spencer Tracey and Sylvia Sydney as a couple separated when Tracey is accused and innocently jailed in a southern town. To aggravate matters, the town decides to take justice into their own hands and lynch the supposed criminal. The ideas within “Fury” (personal justice vs. moral complicity) seem like recycled themes for Lang, and “Fury” could definitely be seen as an inverted companion piece to “M”, yet the film fails to really grab hold. One can feel Lang adjusting to the American (i.e. studio) manner of filmmaking though.

You Only Live Once (1937) *** - From its mundane title comes this solid story of a former criminal trying to go straight despite the unjust obstacles of the world. Henry Fonda injects the film with a sense of humanity that Lang’s previous American male actors couldn’t produce. As in “Fury” and many of his German works, the theme of a man stranded in judgment takes a bitter and sordid turn as Fonda and his best dame (Sylvia Sidney, again) turn their world upside down and become the criminals the world wants to make of them. A prison break-out in encroaching fog and several quiet long takes reveal that Lang was becoming more comfortable as an American filmmaker.

You and Me (1938) ** - Part Ernst Lubitsch romance comedy and part social expose with a bit of musical flourishes thrown in for good measure, “You and Me” is a slap-dash mixture that feels awkward and unsure of itself. There are two or three great scenes though- such as Sylvia Sidney turning the tables on the crew assembled to rob a department store and a highly stylized gathering of criminals that morphs into a musical number of very weird proportions. Playful at best. Not on DVD.

The Return of Frank James (1940) **1/2 - The first of two westerns Lang would make for 20th Century Fox, this is the better of the two. Henry Fonda returns for a second helping with Lang as the brother of Jesse James seeking revenge on the Ford Brothers. Lingering over-the-top performances (from his 1930’s period) mars any real dramatic tension, but “The Return of Frank James” is essentially an agreeable film made for commercial purposes. It succeeds as that, but probably deserves nothing more than a mention on the resume of Lang.

Western Union (1941) ** - Built and shot with little flair for the dramatic, Lang’s second western is agreeable, if not uneventful, serial entertainment. From an auteur, I wanted a little more than the usual cowboys and ‘injuns stuff. Not on DVD.

Manhunt (1941) *** - Evolving into a fairly benign (and quasi) British noir towards the end, the opening moments of a sniper rifle’s scope pointed at a lounging Adolf Hitler serves as very intriguing alternative history. For 1941“Manhunt” is an incredibly brave film.

Hangmen Also Die (1943) ***1/2 - Part two of Lang’s aggressive posture against the NAZI Party in his homeland of Germany, “Hangmen Also Die” is the story of a man’s successful assassination of a high ranking German official (known as the Hangman) in Prague by a member of the Resistance. Lang clearly has subterfuge anger against his home country, displaying the Nazi party leaders in the film as reptilian and oily figures, going so far as to mark one of the leaders with a noticeably large pimple. But camp aside, “Hangmen Also Die” is an adept and entertaining look at not only the prevailing force of the German SS in occupied territories- who hover at the edges of the frame with sinister glares and B movie mobster ruthlessness- but of the internal workings of the Resistance as well. For a flavor of the melodramatic Hollywood, there’s a relationship between the assassin (Brian Donlevy) and a young lady (Anna Lee). Intriguing on just about every level and with a script aided by Bertolt Brecht.

Ministry of Fear (1944) - Odd, but highly effective. The first half of this film plays like a 40’s David Lynch movie- including a suburban carnival that takes place at midnight, an eerie entrance for a blind man on a train and a séance sequence that ends in murder. Once the plot (concerning Ray Milland being mistaken for a spy and hunted by a shadow NAZI organization) is defined, “Ministry of Fear” becomes a little more commercial in its second half. Still, “Ministry of Fear” is enthralling, and by providing its main character with a back story as lurid as being released from an insane asylum in the first three minutes, the whole film could be seen as a crazy (and unreliable) adventure. Not on DVD.

Woman In the Window (1944) ***1/2 - One of the early noirs, Lang again sets a blazing trail with this thriller about a scholarly innocent (James Cagney) whose life jettisons out of control after he meets a beautiful lady (Joan Bennett) and falls prey to murder, deceit and blackmail. The scenes involving the clean-up and disposal of a body are magnificently paced. Watching this film today garners even more enjoyment in the way Lang toys with our expectations and then goes in a completely different direction. And, if in the end, “Woman In the Window” feels like a feverish morality dream, there’s good reason.

Scarlet Street (1945) *** - Straight forward gangster tale with a bit of psychological compulsion as Cagney and Bennett re-team. Interesting thing about this film- the scene in “Goodfellas” where Jimmy (DeNiro) violently chides his heist mates for appearing to flash their money around was taken directly from a scene in “Scarlet Street”. Not on DVD.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) ** - More “Masterpiece Theater” than James Bond, “Cloak and Dagger” suffers from several dead patches as a scientist (Gary Cooper) is asked to go gallivanting around Europe to figure out just how close an old colleague is to creating the atom bomb. Still, there’s one great silent fight sequence as two men battle to the death in the hallway of an apartment house alongside a busy street- shades of the kitchen fight scene in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” and the outstanding brutality of Matt Damon’s fight with an assassin in a sunlight tinged apartment in “The Bourne Identity” abound. If anything, “Cloak and Dagger” shows that even in the late 40’s Lang was conducting magnificent set pieces that still resonate with artists today. The rest of the film, on the other hand, is relatively lifeless.

Secret Beyond the Door (1948) **- Long out of print on any home video format, Lang's perverse love sory is probably one of the odder films of his career. A woman meets a man on vacation and they get married, only for her to find out that her new husband's hobby is collecting identical recreations of rooms in which great murders occured. The shadows and portentious camera moves are present, but "Secret Beyond the Door" really failed to make a connection with me.

House By the River (1950)*** - A (sort of) return to his silent expressionism days, “House By the River” follows a writer who accidentally commits murder and then spends the rest of the film walking around in a glorious self important daze as if he’s one of the impenetrable characters in one of his novels. Lit with stark shadows, staged with a lot of silent screen frontal views and featuring a delirious paranoia, “House By the River” feels like Lang is having fun. And the opening image of a dead animal floating by in the river reverses into a morbid psychological reminder later in the film. Fun to watch.

Rancho Notorious (1952) **** - There’s so much going on in this seemingly benign western, that it’s a crying shame it’s one of the few Lang films not on DVD. Beginning as a tale about a lone man (Arthur Kennedy) with an overbearing desire for justice (insert Donald Westlake influence here) on the outlaw who killed his girlfriend, “Rancho Notorious” soon evolves into a bawdy tale that continually re-invents the mythologies and legends of the west. Marlene Dietrich (oddly, the first time she worked with Lang even though both were huge stars in Germany after World War 1) is Aldar Keane, ex showgirl who now runs a hideout for outlaws. Once Kennedy becomes embroiled with the outlaws at their cozy hideaway, Lang transposes a lot of the noir genre onto the western as the man essentially goes undercover to find and execute swift revenge. Among all these fabulous undercurrents is Lang’s slowly tightening camera that conjures up some iconic images including a bloody, curled hand and a fist fight that most certainly employs one of the first semi-handheld camera approaches for a sense of anger and immediacy. A true under appreciated Lang masterpiece. And, “Blazing Saddles” fans will surely see a bit of Madeline Kahn channeling Dietrich here.

Clash By Night (1952) ** - Essentially a dry run for the much better “Human Desire” a year later, this film finds Barbara Stanwyck playing a destructive whirlwind force in the lives of a coastal man (Paul Douglas), his father and friends (including Marilyn Monroe). Eschewing the real noir elements, “Clash By Night” stays straight on the melodrama path with a script by Clifford Odets as Stanwyck oscillates between Douglas and his best friend Earl (Robery Ryan). Tormented emotion ensues. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the means… just a predictable and safe one.

The Blue Gardenia (1953) **1/2 - Solid but ultimately trifling tale of a recently dumped woman who may be suspected of murder after a few too many cocktails. Lang’s use of noir tropes- a shattered mirror and long shadows- only emphasize the baroque mode he seems to be operating with in the early 50’s.

The Big Heat (1953) ***1/2 - I place this right up there alongside Sam Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” as a sort of turning point for the crime film. Both are violent and angry examinations of crime and punishment that seem to slowly step out of the mannered style of 50’s thrillers and present some harsh realities. In “The Big Heat”, as soon as middle level henchman Lee Marvin tosses hot coffee in the face of dame Gloria Graham, effectively deforming her, all quaintness is left in the dust. The rest of the film, starring Glenn Ford as a suspended cop trying to find the murderer of his wife, is just as ruthless. This film deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Human Desire (1954) *** - Gloria Graham oozes sexiness and danger in this odd three-way love triangle. As the black widow who hates her husband (Broderick Crawford) and lures young train conductor (Glenn Ford) into her clutches, “Human Desire” looks incredible and Lang weaves sweaty innuendo throughout the film. Even though all the characteristics are there, it’s a bit off the pace from the usual noir which works in its favor. Not on DVD.

Moonfleet (1955) ** - In the first 30 minutes, “Moonfleet” lingers on some mysterious and unsettling images- hanging bodies, a demonic looking statue, a hand clutching outward from an open grave. This proves Lang would’ve made one helluva great Hammer horror film. The rest is pretty standard adventure yarn stuff filmed in vibrant color Cinemascope as a young boy (Stewart Granger) hunts for a lost gem. Not on DVD.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) *1/2 - One of the worst of Lang’s “late period” works, this seemingly deconstructive courtroom drama plays out like a lazy episode of Matlock. A writer (Dana Andrews), goaded on by his liberal minded editor, decides to fake the circumstantial evidence around the murder of a burlesque girl in order to be convicted of the crime and prove the death penalty is wrong. Lang’s direction is static. Gone are the mesmerizing set pieces and probing camera when the tension gets high. Instead, everything is medium shot and serious as if there’s no energy behind the camera. A disappointment.

While the City Sleeps (1956) *** - Alternating between the serial killing rampage of a confused mama’s boy and the structural downsizing of a local newspaper, “While the City Sleeps” shows little difference in the savagery of either one. Competently structured, but with a few off-center ideas (especially the casting of Vincent Price as the paper magnate whose attention the four main characters are vying for), this again feels like a less spirited venture by Lang. Not on DVD.

Indian Tale (1959)*** - A career full circle, with Lang returning to Germany to film this 4 hour tale from an idea by scriptwriter Thea von Harbour who wreot emany of his 1920's silent films. The story of a British engineer fighting carnivorous tigers and stealing beautiful Indian women is straight out of a B novel, but the lavish production design and bright CineScope colors make this an entertaining crown on am illustrious career.

Unable to view: Hari-kari, The Moving Image, Four Around A Woman, Siegfried’s Death, Kriemhild’s Revenge, 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

Monday, November 16, 2009

Produced and Abandoned #4

1. The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952)- Sadly, there's not a whole lot of Roberto Rosselini on DVD for some reason. Made after his international success with films like "Paisan" and "Open City", this film sounds intriguing as it details a demon who gives special powers to a man's camera and the ability to "smite" people from the Earth with it. I can only imagine the greatness that Rosselini rings from this tale.
2. Yol (1982)- Turkish film that was celebrated at Cannes, this was one of the first foreign movies I got a chance to see outside of my introduction to the French New Wave about 15 years ago. Yilmaz Guney's extraordinarily moving tale, the film features a group of prisoners who are granted leave to visit their family. VHS copies exist, but it's never been released on DVD. In fact, alot of groundbreaking Cannes Fest winners have yet to make it to DVD.
3. Phobia (1980)- Not too many good words are out there for John Huston's early 80's psycho-drama about patients who receive some pretty screwed up advice from their equally screwed up therapist. I'm about to begin a look at many of John Huston's films, so I'll be trying to track down a copy soon.
4. Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)- Another filmmaker sorely lacking on DVD (or at least his later career) is Robert Aldrich. This film from the late 70's stars Burt Lancaster as a general who takes over a missile silo and threatens the President of the United States. C'mon... we deserve a chance to see that, right?
5. The Horse Thief (1986)- Not only is "The Horse Thief" routinely mentioned as one of Scorsese's favorite films, but it's also regarded as one of the milestones of Chinese cinema that helped to kick start the Fifth Generation filmmaking crowd.
6. Doc's Full Service (1994)- Out of all the films on this list, this is the one I truly doubt I'll ever see. The last film by Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell, it's never been released on any video format. Routinely written about as a full-on mess (as its director was drunk half the time), it has no real stars and documents the ramblings of a group of people around a small gas station. If anyone has any ideas on where this can be found, I'd love to hear it.
7. The Prowler (1951)- Talked about in length recently on Glenn Kenny's blog, it sounds like a fascinating and overlooked gem in the career of Joseph Losey.
8. Ipcress File (1965)- So many good spy films, so little time. Michael Caine plays agent Harry Brown for the first time in a story of brain washing and political skulduggery. I understand there are Region 2 Russian copies out there for a hefty price.
9. Capone (1975)- If Warren Oates' version of John Dillinger can see the light of day, then there must be an audience for the John Cassavetes version of Al Capone. Directed by little known director Steve Carver who made a living with this type of cheapo gangster film (see "Big Bad Mama"), there has to be some value here.
10. The Carey Treatment- Blake Edwards' dark, dark drama about a doctor who ends up being tagged for murder and the peer (James Coburn) who searches for the truth. Part noir and part social commentary, this is a great film that twists and turns with surprises and allows Coburn to play out his own version of the laid back, sarcastic Philip Marlowe type made humorous a year later by Elliot Gould in "The Long Goodbye".

Friday, November 13, 2009

On "An Education"

Lone Scherfig's "An Education" takes a prominently well-spun idea and turns it into something aching and real. The May-December romance (this time with a 16 year old schoolgirl and a suave older man) plays out with sincerity, mostly due to the very strong acting by newcomer Carey Mulligan. In just a few lines of dialogue, "An Education" sharply brings into focus the canyon of differences in lifestyles, world views and knowledge between the wide-eyed youngster and her well versed suitor. When David (Peter Saarsgard) asks her what her plans are on Friday, Jenny (Mulligan) replies with the naive answer of "I'll be in school". David smiles and says, "I meant Friday night". The gulf of experience that so many films spend 90 minutes trying to explain, writers Scherfig and Nick Hornby dispense with naturalism in 90 seconds. The rest of the film- as we watch Mulligan become introduced to some hard choices in life- simply soars from there.
In the tradition of stuffy, 1960's era British family dramas, "An Education" adheres to the formula. It's not a flashy movie, but one that opens itself up through wonderfully acute performances and textured reaction shots. I wouldn't bat an eyelash if every actor in this movie received an acting nomination of some kind. Already mentioned in breathless quotes throughout the film scene, Carey Mulligan as Jenny steals the show. But it's the secondary characters who provide dimension to the film. From Alfred Molina's overly protective and single-minded father (who pulls his character out of shrill territory with a moving monologue towards the end of the film) to Sally Hawkins (who only pops up in one 2 minute scene, yet runs circles around most everyone else in the film), "An Education" positions itself as a character study of the highest order. This is precisely the intimately made little film that keeps me going to the movie theater in search for something redeeming.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

It's Amazing.... much this show cracks me up each week.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On Antichrist- spoilers

My auteur bunch is really failing me lately. First, there was the head-scratcher from the Coen Brothers and now Lars vonTrier generates this controversial and altogether hokey semblance of... a Bergman film?.... an avant garde horror film?... or is he just having another big laugh? I won't deny that there's a strange power to certain segments of "Antichrist" (namely the final sequence with a horde of faceless women climbing a mountain), but overall, von Trier's latest left me cold.

There are two ways one can read "Antichrist". Taken seriously, it reads something like this: Like some of the best work of David Lynch including "Mulholland Drive" and "Inland Empire", von Trier's "Antichrist" exists somewhere between reality and psychological breakdown. With the lines blurred, it allows the director to fade in and out of naturalism, surrealism and, in the case of the talking fox in "Antichrist", outright absurd ism. Re-watching the Lynch films mentioned, I certainly see a link between some of the hidden references in both films. If you pay close enough attention, you can almost tell where the fissures inside Naomi Watson's character breaks open into la-la-land. There's a distinct purpose in alot of the visual and aural madness. With "Antichrist", I don't know if repeat viewings will substantiate any thoughtful undercurrents. Honestly, I don't have the energy to try. If we relate the violent and unsettling events in "Antichrist" directly to the grief-stricken, fractured mind of the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), then von Trier can mix up a huge cocktail of irrelevant images, stifled emotions and confusing analogies in the hopes of labeling his film as a psychotic exploration of a deteriorating mind. In short, this gives a film the license to be pretentious, awkward or passionately non-linear. Art students have been doing that for years. But strangely, out of the two possibilities of reading this film, it works the best in this light. The whole film very well may exist only in the head of Gainsbourg, and that succinctly explains the talking fox and her overwhelming desire to squash her husband's penis then drill a concrete block through his leg. For the sake of world cinema, this type of silly symbolism plays like gangbusters.

Secondly, "Antichrist" could be just another litmus test for American audiences. As a huge von Trier admirer until the early 00's, he seemed to go off the deep end around 1999, after the smashing success of "Dancer In the Dark". Though some of his subsequent films have its ardent admirers, "The Idiots", "Dogville", "Manderlay" and "The Boss Of It All", require loads of patience. The synopsis of "The Idiots"- a film in which a group of people run rampant around a city, babbling incoherently and disrupting its way of life- seems to be the cinematic mantra of von Trier. With "Antichrist", he's upped the ante with name stars and some CGI effects, but he's still the proverbial bull in the china shop. I can easily see "Antichrist" being fired up in circles for years to come, playing as a comedy. Hell, there's already a t-shirt.

"Antichrist" is not the worst film of the year, or even close. It's one of those meh 2 star things that picks at you because it's from the creative hand of a director you once greatly admired. Yes, Dafoe and Gainsbourg act their hearts out with the conviction of really tormented people, and it features a stunning prologue and epilogue in shimmering black and white that immediately sets the tone for something great. And while the visual trademark of von Trier for the past decade has been the hand-held jerky thing, catching images on the fly and cutting after every sentence spoken by the actors, "Antichrist" is compellingly static for the most part. His camera has meaning in certain parts. One of the most striking shots in the entire film is the subtle moment as the camera virtually sits atop the casket of their dead son, peering out the back window as man and woman walk in grief behind it. Gainsbourg falls to the ground and the camera makes a wild little verge to catch her, then rests back atop the casket. In a film chock full of wanna-be-horrific images, this small moment has stuck with me the most. If everything in "Antichrist" had been handled with this emotional intellectualism, then maybe I'd be talking about the latest von Trier masterpiece.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Nasty Remains: More Horror Film Capsules


I really have no excuse why it’s taken so long to watch Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 precursor to the now prolific J-horror wave, “Kwaidan”. Less about outright scares and more concerned with the slow-burn atmosphere and mood that surrounds the age old ghosts stories that the compendium film tells, “Kwaidan” is also visually sumptuous. Told against the artificial backdrop of lively painted sets, the film features tales with ominous names such as “The Black Hair” and “The Woman of the Snow” that center on the scorn of betrayal within relationships. Each one of these four tales have roots in mythic storytelling and they’ve been done countless times over since, but watching the original source is still entertaining.

Dead Snow

Taking two of the most successful genre types of the recent years (the bad Nazi and the zombie picture) and merging them into a blood-splattered, playful exercise seems like a can’t miss formula. And for the most part, Tommy Wirkola’s Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” succeeds. His penchant for self reflexive humor is obvious (and a bit much at times as the characters want us to know how hip they are by referencing “The Evil Dead” and quoting Indiana Jones), but this is certainly not a film for strong character development. The 7 med students who travel to a snowy mountaintop cabin and find themselves sitting on a box of dead Nazi gold are nothing more than ciphers for the bloodletting. The make-up is especially inventive and creepy. And as the final (insanely bloody) 30 minutes rolls, the parenthetical homage to Raimi and Peter Jackson are quickly matched. Fun stuff.

The Unseen

When one of the main stars of a film is the portly and weird Sidney Lassick, the bar isn’t set very high. So as it is with this 1980 film about three reporters who become trapped in the house of a deranged brother and sister… and with something evil lurking in the basement. There’s no subtext at all here. The idea of female empowerment ala “The Descent” or a trip into true madness are both avoided here. Instead, “The Unseen” is a pretty boring and harmless 80’s oddity.

Near Dark

With several high profile credits to her name- and a potential Oscar run on her hands with this year’s “The Hurt Locker”- 1987’s “Near Dark” remains, for my money, Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Merging the western into a type of gothic horror (oh how pretty those sunlit Texas plains quickly turn into darkness as a Winnebago stalks across the landscape), Bigelow upped the ante on the modern vampire flick and created something very naturalistic and frightening. The sexual tension between Mae (Jenny Wright… what happened to her??) and Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) sets the framework for a tragic love story filled with blood, gore and broken mythology. I watch this every year and damn if it doesn’t get better and better.


A cerebral zombie picture of the highest order, Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool” is an effective one set character piece that dazzles and elates with words and ideas rather than gore. The picture I chose as the screen cap below is grossly overselling the bloodletting. As a Don Imus like radio DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) stumbles into work one day and is plunged directly into an apocalyptic catastrophe as it builds in the outside world. Trapped inside the small Canadian radio station with Mazzy is his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Julia Ann (Georgina Reilly). Broken cell phone calls, unintelligible babbling from callers and off-frame noises slowly integrate the evolving madness upon the isolated radio station. “Pontypool” is a revelatory zombie picture, although writer Tony Burgess and McDonald are careful to avoid the use of the word zombie at all. The virus spreads through the use of the English language, which in and of itself poises just as many questions as the film answers. It’s all heady stuff, to be sure, but immensely pleasurable and challenging.

Dinner With A Vampire

The first 45 minutes of Lamberto Bava’s “Dinner With A Vampire” eschews the cheesy Italian horror genre by playing with the ideas of showmanship and successfully copying the black and white eeriness of Murnau’s “Nosferatu”. The second half becomes, well, a cheesy Italian horror film complete with bad dubbing, confusing scene changes and continuity errors (a female wearing stockings one scene, bare legs the next, then back to stockings!).