Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cinema Obscura: Lion's Den

Pablo Trapero's "Lion's Den" is a unique prison picture. Formatted virtually around the hard (but equally beautiful) face of actress Martina Gusman, the film is an unrelenting portrait of a woman confined to harsh surroundings desperately clinging to a small strand of real life. That slice of real life happens to be her baby boy, who she gives birth to in prison. The 'lion's den' in question is an Argentine prison that Julia (Gusman) is sent to after an oblique and sparsely explained opening crime. Placed in an all-female ward, Julia soon finds out she's pregnant and moved to a section of the prison where the inmates roam freely, breastfeeding their children and walking them to kindergarten. The law is that the children stay with their mothers in prison until the age of four. Trying to appeal her sentence, Julia soon encounters other forces outside her control that threaten to take her child away. Detailing the squalor of the prison with an unflinching gaze and perfectly timed long takes, "Lion's Den" expresses a ferociously moving point of view, none more so than the primal emotion that emerges from Julia when her son is initially taken away from her. It's a magnificent performance from Gusman, made all the more poignant by the way Trapero documents the children playing inside the prison, swinging on the bars and disappearing behind locked doors that echo with a loud thud as if they were mingling on a playground.

Watching "Lion's Den" just a day after seeing Lucretia Martel's masterful "The Headless Woman" makes for an interesting double bill. Both films, made by Argentine filmmakers, tackle a specific theme with brilliance and sure hands. And both films present women in peril (physical and psychological) with an unwavering sensibility that seems lost in most other films. While Martel's lead woman falls into a state of amnesia after (possibly) murdering someone, Trapero's punished woman claws and scratches with all her life, burning with the memory of her child to keep herself sane and focused on the goal of eventual release. Both women take divergent paths, yet both films analyze sections of Argentine life that rarely receive any attention. "Lion's Den" ranks very high with the prison picture as a genre (made by a man or woman) and it deserves to be seen. The most harrowing message, though, lies in the quiet scenes of the children lingering behind bars. The mother committed the crimes, but the children are paying for them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Better Way To Say Happy Holidays....

....then with one of those kick ass retrospectives of the year in movies? Enjoy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

70's Bonanza: The Wrath of God

Just look at that poster. Need I say more? Robert Mitchum stars as a priest traveling through a South American country caught up in turmoil and public executions. Along the way, he meets up with an Irish hooligan (Ken Hutchison) and British gent (Victor Buono) also trying to escape the political civil war. They're snatched up and given a unique proposition. Since all three men are certainly not what they seem to be, "The Wrath of God" becomes one of the those great 70's motley-men-on-a-mission films. Their target- a villainous land owner named de la Plata-played with wide eyed insanity by Frank Langella. Yes, that Frank Langella. I know he's Italian, but nonetheless.

Directed by Ralph Nelson, who previously made "Lilies In the Field", he turns that film's Christian goodness message on its ear with "The Wrath of God". Dressed in priest's clothing, Mitchum hides some deadly skills under that robe. At times looking like he's bored with the whole thing, I wouldn't call it a great Mitchum performance, but a fun one. The real star is young Langella, tormented by a hidden secret, plagued by his do-gooder mother (Rita Hayworth!) and determined to kill any religious figure who sets foot in his town. "The Wrath of God" segues into a pseudo western action film as the trio of 'hit men' attempt to carry out their mission, and Lord do the bullets begin to fly. In the world of 70's 'B' movies, it fits in nicely between Bava's "Rabid Dogs" and "The Guns of the Navarone".

Thursday, December 17, 2009



Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” is, above all, an actors feast. Drafted and remade from Susanna Bier’s excellent 2004 Danish film of the same name, I found myself less interested in this remake due to 1) the film’s trailer that illuminates and exhales some of the film’s most juiced up moments and 2) the fact that Bier’s film was so damn good in every aspect that a basic retread felt like watching an instant replay. Still, if there’s one great thing about Sheridan’s humanistic touch, it’s his ability to draw naturalistic performances out of young children. Like the twin daughters in his previous work, “In America”, youngsters Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare avoid the shrill kids role and seemingly invest real fear and emotion. And there’s a scene at a dinner table during a birthday party that slowly evokes tension with precise care. “Brothers” is by no means a bad film, just another in a long line of movies that raises the question of ’why do we need it’ after such a remarkable original effort.

Red Cliff

Cut by over 100 minutes and unceremoniously dumped into theaters with little advanced buzz, John Woo’s “Red Cliff” still deserves to be seen for its eye popping visuals and rapt attention to battle strategy. Though one can feel some of the subplots between its characters were obvious victims of the lopped time, what remains is, essentially, an hour of sweeping battles wrapped around protracted segments of strategies and back story. Though it takes a bit to get organized with the myriad of characters, Woo adroitly overcomes that through entertaining examples of antiquated strategy, such as the easiest way to draw an encroaching army into a dust storm ambush or the cringe-inducing effects of psychological warfare through the methods of shipping typhoid infected bodies to your enemies. And then there are the battles, which Woo serves up in hyper stylized slow motion and overhead tracking shots as if he were filming a ballet company in full swoon. It all coalesces magnificently into grand entertainment. I’m searching for the full 5 hour version now.

Up In the Air

I don’t know if anyone could be as indifferent to Jason Reitman’s previous film (“Juno”) as I was. Well, going into the heavily hyped “Up In the Air”, I was reticent about the whole thing. And a strange thing happened. I loved it. Razor sharp in its emotions and with nary a spare word of dialogue, the film unfurls with utter truth and honesty. As the traveling warrior whose job it is to fire people, Clooney again takes a simple role and embellishes it with gentle grace. There are life changes, and some big speeches, and some very tender moments with a similar soul (the always game and beautiful Vera Farmiga), and “Up In the Air” nails each and every moment. A really good film.


Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” contains both a compassionate plea for world peace and the idea that sport can unite a country despite its racially charged background. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that message and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon play their roles to the hilt, but “Invictus” plays it too safe. It’s placement for social consciousness is telegraphed throughout every scene. With films like “Mystic River” and “Changeling’, Eastwood waded in some morally murky waters with startling results. There are some nice touches, such as the echo of the television set’s final World Cup match continually juxtaposed against the various ethnic backdrops, but too much of “Invictus” feels tonally schematic.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's In the Netflix Queue #26

First, anyone else think it's kinda cheap for Netflix to charge $4 more a month for Blu Ray releases?

1. A Tale of Sorrow- Just like Takashi Miike, Sejun Suzuki films are continually released on DVD with little fanfare. Maybe it's because both of these guys deal prolifically in demented sex, surreal ideas and maniacal colors. This film from 1977 is a "cat-and-mouse tale that traces model and pro golfer Reiko's (Yoko Shiraki) encounters with the dark side of celebrity after she wins her first tournament, lands a TV gig and acquires a bizarre stalker -- her nutty neighbor, Mrs. Semba. The crazed woman is privy to a dangerous secret and forces Reiko to submit to a series of increasingly violent demands. Little does she know that Reiko will fight when provoked."
2. The Insect Woman- I'm very excited to see this film from Shohei Imamura that was put out in a triple pack of previously unreleased films.
3. I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar- French filmmaker Philip Garrel has his admirers. While I did like his poetic, three hour black and white meditation on the '68 student protests "Regular Lovers" (which featured two or three exquisite long takes), some of the other things I've seen from him border on the tedious. This film from 1991 again deals with his ongoing theme of burgeoning and lost one-time love (said to be rock singer Nico).
4. Edge of Darkness- Already halfway through this BBC mini series, this has been remade as a Mel Gibson thriller releasing early next year. With a wonderful, stone cold performance by Bob Peck and an amusing turn from Joe Don Baker, "Edge of Darkness" is a convoluted trip through nuclear politics, British spooks and hit men that has kept me guessing. This goes to show that the BBC were way ahead of their time in the mid 80's with stellar original television programming.
5. Three Brothers- Franceso Rosi's early 80's Italian classic has been cited as an influence on Scorsese and Coppola.
6. Scott Walker; 20th Century Man- This documentary has been floundering on my list for over a year now, so I recently moved it up. I know very little about musician Scott Walker, but the raves attributed to this film a couple years ago has me very interested.
7. Une Femme Marie- I think I've seen this mid 60's Godard film, but can't be sure. Still, this is way before his radical (and alienating) period, so by all means I'll probably adore it.
8. Local Hero- For whatever reason, Bill Forsyth is a filmmaker lauded by so many movie fans and one that I've yet to experience. "Local Hero" is spoken of very highly as a tiny miracle of a movie.
9. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes- I had no idea Billy Wilder made in film in 1970 that shows Holmes as a cocaine addicted, sexual deviant. Sure to be bolstered by the upcoming Holmes film with Downey Jr, I'm very curious to check out this oddity.
10. The Hit - I'm sure I've seen Stephen Frears breakout hit starring Terence Stamp, yet I can't remember a thing abut it. Time for a revisit, since it's recently gotten the Criterion treatment.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top 5 List: Great Performances of 2009

With a few marquee names still to come in films this month (i.e. Morgan Freeman, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeff Bridges), here's a rundown of the 5 performances that made an indelible mark so far this year, in no order:

5. Peter Capaldi

As the vitriol political spin doctor Malcom Tucker, every scene with Capaldi is a masterwork in verbal violence and aggressive body language. Every time he walked on screen in Armadno Ianucci's highly entertaining comedy "In the Loop", one could feel the audience tense up with anticipation and guarded laughter. This is the stuff of real acting... a performance that manipulates and titillates.

4. Carey Mulligan

Not the best known secret in town anymore, young Carey Mulligan embraces every scene in "An Education" with intelligence and warmth. As noted by many, "An Education" is a terrific film not only because it eschews the pitfals of the genre it places itself within, but Mulligan's clear eyed performance is genuine and makes one really care for the outcome.

3. Emily Blunt

Probably the biggest surprise of my movie-going year so far is Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning". I expected very little from this small comedy-drama out of Sundance, yet it resonated strongly. Emily Blunt- beautiful beyond belief- really makes me love this film even more. As the younger, more complex and off beat sister to Amy Adams, the duo organizes a crime scene cleaning business. The film goes to some very unexpected places, and I doubt I'll see a better scene in any film this year than the moment when Blunt takes her new friend (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to the train tracks and releases some pent up sadness.

2. Vera Farmiga

Another stone cold beauty with some serious acting chops, Vera Farmiga is quickly becoming an actress I devour anything she's in. 2009 saw her taking on two diverse roles (with another yet to be seen): first, as the blown CIA operative in Rod Lurie's "Nothing But the Truth", Farmiga steals the movie with a couple of scenes, namely one where she tries to appeal to the softer side of reporter Kate Beckinsale before retreating into corrosive governmental threats. Secondly, in a more typical role as the distraught mother in the over-the-top child horror movie "Orphan". Her sexiness, nerve, and strong command are on display in both movies and I can't wait to see what she does in "Up In the Air".

1. ensemble cast of "Summer Hours" (a bit of a cheat)

Like the best of Renoir or Rohmer, Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours" captures something autumnal and heartbreaking about the large family. Setting his film around the death of a family's mother and then trying to settle her estate afterwards, every actor in this multi-generational cast embues their role with subtely and beauty. And it ends on a perfect note as the young grand daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) slowly wanders around the large estate grounds as the mortality of the film's events finally hit her. A stunning moment and film.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Last Couple Weeks at the Movies

The Box

When one admits to liking a Richard Kelly film, one had better compile a lengthy reading of the “whys” and “hows“. To this day, I readily admit that I don’t understand half of what’s going on in “Southland Tales”, yet it still strikes me as an audacious, moving and consistently entertaining meta-movie that burns with far more ideas than it probably deserves. “The Box” is just as much a head trip, except this time I’ve got an opinion on what it’s about, why it works and just why its stuck with me for so long. Weaving through layers of religious allegory, time travel (again), and some even farther-out-there-thoughts, “The Box” packs a walloping cerebral punch as the nuclear family (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) agonize over the decision whether or not to push the button on a mysterious box left by a stranger (a wonderful, lurking Frank Langella). Needless to say, Kelly exhausts the possibilities, wrapping them around an almost suffocating air of claustrophobia and paranoia set in the wintry holiday season of Virginia circa the late 70’s. Few images this year will stick with me longer than Marsden’s trek through a library, being followed by a gang of wide eyed men and women or the black figures that populate in the corners of a snow covered field. The common complaint- that Kelly makes indecipherable genre pictures with far too many ideas scrambled together- could be applied to “The Box”, yet it ends on such a savage and well structured concept that I think Kelly knew exactly what he was doing all along. I look forward to seeing this again.


A film I don’t look forward to seeing ever again, however, is Lee Daniel’s “Precious”, a thoroughly ugly and sledge hammered film that tries to eek human resiliency out of amateurish zoom pans and handheld immediacy. I respect that the events actually happened to someone, but “Precious” in no way instilled a sense of shared concern or empathy with its characters. The small moments- the performance of Paula Patton as a caring teacher or Mariah Carey as a social worker- were continually overwhelmed by the wanton moments of independent cinema grand moments (i.e Mo Nique) and over-the-top acting that continually overshadow the basic connection just beginning to form for Precious (Gabourey Sidibe). Less is often more, yet “Precious” tramples on subtlety.

The Road

John Hillcoat has already carved a splendid little career out of visually devastated landscapes and roughneck emotions, and his faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalypse novel to end all apocalypse novels “The Road” excels in relentless grit and grime. As the father (Viggo Mortenson) and the boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) traverse the landscape, Hillcoat’s vision of snow covered wastelands lit only by far-away fires is compelling and realistic… and its certainly done the novel’s poetic descriptions justice. Every corner of this film is loaded with debris, broken trees and technological wreckage. The one real diversion from the novel- fleshing out the character of the mother played by Charlize Theron in flashback- feels like the right decision as it provides Mortenson and McPhee with purpose and heartbreak. And when the truly chilling moments arise, such as the emergence of a band of rovers from a dark tunnel or the grisly and disturbing discovery in a house cellar, “The Road” rattles around before your eyes like a one-of-a-kind horror film.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I wish I could raise more enthusiasm for Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Yes, this is just like watching any other Wes Anderson movie, complete with father-son discord, quick one-liners and a carefully composed wide angle lens set ups, but this time its decked out in a stop-motion style of animation that looks and feels unique. I had a good time with it, but ultimately not much has stuck with me. As always, those three stars films are the hardest ones to write about.