Saturday, December 25, 2010

Serious Radio: Tops of 2010

Admittedly, I listened to less new music this year than in previous ones. With the addition of satellite radio in January of '09, last year I was the virtual kid in a candy shop, tuning from the all-reggae station, to the ultra-relaxing "Cinemagic" soundtrack station, then back to the all Pearl Jam channel.... in a heaven of trebles and bass as a good friend said. This new ambient world flooded the senses and opened me up to a great new selection of music. I'm not a fan of the new 'chill wave' as its been dubbed (musical leaders being artists such as Wavves, Washed Out, Salem, Caribou etc.) and I'm very turned off by the rampant burgeoning of 60's pop rock in bands like Girls, Teen Dream, Vampire Weekend or the re-imagining of Howlin Wolf blues in The Black Keys. Very little new music connected with me, and I sorta relied on the old favorites. Luckily, they smashed my expectations and churned out 4 of the 5 best albums of the year. So, without further adieu, my favorite music of the year:

1. The National- High Violet

The National have been evolving on every album, and "High Violet" is their most mature effort to date, combining piercingly self-deprecating lyrics with a magisterial symphony of music that builds... and builds... and builds on every tune. Sure, they're singing about failed marriages, awkward attempts at lovemaking and cannibalism (sometimes in the same song), but Matt Berninger's baritone voice carries such amazing weight. I know I said this when their last album was released, but they should be huge by now.

2. Jonsi- Go

Sigur Ros is, simply, a transcendent band. Most of that acclaim is due to lead singer Jonsi's voice. With his solo debut album, Jonsi again creates a mountain of sound timed to his uniquely high pitched voice that could've been culled from any lost demo tracks of Sigur Ros. This is music to lose yourself in, and "Go" is a startling compilation.

3. The Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

One of the most exciting somewhat mainstream band working today, The Arcade Fire had everything working against them. Mucho hype, high expectations.... and yet "The Suburbs" still feels fresh and eclectic. It's not quite "Funeral", but not much is.

4. A Silver Mt. Zion- "Kollaps Tradioxionales"

Through several name changes (dropping Thee from their name) and a revolving door of talented musicians, A Silver Mt. Zion has produced some fantastic explorations that blend all types of music. They can go on for awhile and have been cited as nothing more than a soundtrack band, yet "Kollaps Tradixionales" is a stunning work of originality and depth. It's also their most accessible work to date. They still have that go-for-broke insanity, though, as punctuated by the opening 17 minute track called "There Is A Light" that plays like a warped, beautiful Sam Cooke tune on acid. This whole album contains new secrets that amaze on repeat listens, and that's what I expect from great artists.

5. Local Natives- Gorilla Manor

This Los Angeles band have a very propulsive sound, led by lead singer Taylor Rice and a catchy array of songs that ultimately moves the spirits. I don't know if the description of "afro pop" really suits these guys, but I certainly look forward to whatever they do next.

6. Broken Social Scene- Forgiveness Rock Record

Whatever it is about Canada, they churn out some impressive bands, chock full of symphony sections, electronica at just the right moment and a swaying sound that bounces from genre to genre. Three bands on this list qualify. Broken Social Scene have been quietly doing this type of thing for years now, and "Forgiveness Rock Record" is a joyous experiment that blends everything together in a wired display of sounds.

Bonus: if you like what you hear from The National, listen to this:

And the single best use of Broken Social Scene in the movies:

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I love this time of year, frantically trying to catch up on past films from 2010, seeing the unveiling of numerous 'best of' lists and taking in the prominent December releases.

White Material

Claire Denis has always been a tactile filmmaker… relying on mood and fractured images that shift between interior psychology and external demands (I.e. lust, fear or sexual dominance). “White Material” is nothing different, a political film that never feels political and one that charts her predilection for slow-burn devastation with stunning ease. Starring Isabelle Huppert as one of the last remaining white people in a suddenly changing Northern Africa run amok with machete-wielding children and no workers for her coffee bean plantation, Denis spins a sunburned nightmare that constantly evokes the vestiges of a great thriller without ever really thrilling. While there a couple of seemingly impossible character arcs presented involving her son (Nicholas Duvauchelle), Huppert amazingly holds the screen. Roaming around the frenetic edges as their white-bred world comes crashing down around them is also Christopher Lambert as the enigmatic husband and Isaach de Bankole as a rebel leader. Not completely as successful as Denis’ “The Intruder” or “Trouble Every Day”, “White Material” is still an intelligent rendering of a story that’s been told numerous times.

127 Hours

Buoying his camera around the neck of James Franco like he’s a fellow frat boy along for the ride, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” would make for a solid double feature with Rodrigo Cortez’s “Buried” in the pantheon of claustrophobia cinema. And like “Buried”, “127 Hours” finds unique and moving ways to open up the stalled narrative device of a man stuck in the gut of a canyon with a boulder over his hand. Flashing back on his life, first love and even flash-forwarding into the future, “127 Hours” is a kinetic experience. Franco, whose already received some Oscar buzz not least because he’s hosting, deserves a nomination as Aron Ralston, the adventure-seeker who went to extraordinary lengths to free himself from a very serious predicament. As with Huppert above, Franco owns every single frame of “127 Hours”, and when the finale does occur, it’s an explosive, cathartic moment of filmmaking that wipes over you in waves.

The Next Three Days

Marketing and advertising be damned! If it weren’t for a few good words from friends about Paul Haggis’ new film “The Next Three Days”, I would have easily dismissed it as diminutive genre fare. Instead, it’s a taut, thoughtful picture that seduces a wonderful performance from Russell Crowe as the man struggling with his moral compass to break out his murder-accused wife (Elizabeth Banks) from prison. Haggis, with the exception of his debut film “Crash” that bluntly beat one over the head with stereotypes and West Coast liberalism, has crafted some great movies about complex subjects. In “The Next Three Days”, he scales back the preaching and focuses on the endless preparation of Crowe to mastermind an elaborate escape plan. Smart in all the right places and edited with razor sharp precision when the chase begins, every character is given depth, from the police detectives trying to piece together the puzzle to the flirtatious playground mom (Olivia Wilde). “The Next Three Days” also plays with compassion and identification, endlessly shifting one’s loyalty from cop to desperate family on the run without pulling at the emotions. It’s all very well done and with a deeply felt ambiguous ending.

Black Swan

I can’t shake Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” out of my head. Like “The Red Shoes” on acid, Aronofsky’s latest is a terror psychodrama that plays like a propulsive fever dream. Natalie Portman is terrific as the dancer who succumbs to the pressures of being a leading lady and Aronofsky (much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) never falters from having his camera perched just over the shoulders of his star as she marches through reality and unreality. Sound design has always been a staple of Aronofsky films, but he takes it to a new level here in “Black Swan”, echoing laughter in odd places and firmly subverting our own perceptions of what is real and what is not. An outright masterpiece.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Virtual Download Buzz

So I finally jumped into the world of digital streaming with Netflix's Instant View features and, wow, is there some great (i.e. highly unavailable on home video) stuff located there. For someone as technically geeky as myself, I'm terrible at connectivity. I broke down and purchased a Roku player because I couldn't get any of the other options to work. I've got a Sony Blu Ray player, but apparently the model I have doesn't allow for this connection. I have an old Xbox 360 that I rarely play, yet one needs one of those Xbox gold subscription plans for Internet connectivity. Basically, the Roku seemed like an affordable option. I'm so glad I did. There are so many great films unavailable on any video format readily at hand on Instant View. Obscure titles like "Twins of Evil", Monte Hellman's "China 9, Liberty 37", Kinji Fukasaku's "Message From Space" and many more. Then there are long lost 70's greats such as "Looking For Mr. Goodbar", Francesco Rosi's "Excellent Cadavers" (which I've been hunting for years) and the Terence Malick penned "Deadhead Miles". For a movie lover, this is close to heaven. I've been resistant to streaming video in the past simply because I can't bear to watch films on a 16" computer screen. This option, sreaming straight to my 55" plasma screen, defies those hangups. And with titles added daily, this is a very encouraging method of film production to the masses. One can find some great suggestions here. Thank you Netflix.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Last Wave: New Aussie Cinema

Every couple of years, the cinematic tide seems to shift, introducing the world to bold new talents, seemingly, at the same time. In 2005, I can remember the rush of watching Park Chan Wook's "Oldboy", Bong Jo-Hoo's "Memories of Murder" and Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows" all within a few months of each other. The same thing happened this year.... three new films from the land down under (aka Australia) that not only seem to revitalize their respected tired genres, but launch a creatively fertile group of filmmakers and artists onto the international stage.

David Michod's "Animal Kingdom" (releasing on home video tomorrow- go rent it for God's sake!) will undoubtedly remain as the single best film of 2010 for me... a lightning bolt of a film that slowly unearths somber emotions about family and revenge within the context of a James Elroy-like crime film full of police corruption, innocent victims and cold blooded psychopaths.
From the film's opening moments as a lush piece of orchestra plays over grainy black and white surveillance camera images of a bank robbery, "Animal Kingdom" is an assured filmmaking debut that only continues to deepen as it rolls towards a shattering climax. Our cypher into this hard boiled story of a bank robbing family is young "J" Cody (James Frecheville), left alone after his mother's overdose and forced to go live with his aunt and three uncles. Each brother seems more psychotic than the other and they keep a low profile from local cops (led by Guy Pearce) while slowly dragging J into their master plans of crime. At times violent and genuinely unsettling in several scenes of simple conversation, director Michod never employs flashy techniques. "Animal Kingdom" is all about acting, subtle editing and a terrific narrative that elicits gasps with ease.

Nash Edgerton's "The Square" is a bit more of the traditional film noir, tracking the body count that slowly rises as construction manager Ray (David Roberts) and his younger mistress and neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom) posit a scheme to steal her husband's dirty bag of cash. In the best sense of film noir, a somewhat decent and root-worthy character is dragged into an impending abyss of violence and terrible mistakes. As in "Animal Kingdom", director Edgerton keeps the entire film simple, allowing for a twisty plot to energize the wooden narrative which dense surprises and palpable tension. Edgerton's ability with mood and tempo is perfectly exemplified in one scene where both Raymond and Carla are enjoying Christmas fireworks with their families when tragedy strikes, and Edgerton captures their rising fear with a small glance across the field. Of course, "The Square" is not without its fair share of "oh shit" moments as well. There are always casualties in film noir, and Australians are no exceptions.

Lastly, the most out-of-left-field film to cause a stir from Australia was Joel Anderson's "Lake Mungo". Part of the usually disastrous and amateurish "After Dark" film series, Anderson's faux documentary is decidedly creepy and.... truly haunting. I understand the term faux documentary and horror are hot commodities right now, but "Lake Mungo" is a quiet cousin to the bigger budget mainstream teases such as "Paranormal Activity" and "The Last Exorcism".
After the drowning death of their 16 year old daughter on a family vacation, the Palmer family begins to record images of their dead daughter in their house. Psychic readings are endured. Lies and a nasty family secret are upended. Then the real mystery about their dead daughter surfaces. I can't help but think the last name of "Palmer" is used in extreme respect for Lynch's "Twin Peaks".... a series that touches on some of the same deviant acts and atmospheric dread as "Lake Mungo". Anderson traces all of this as if a documentary crew is interviewing the family and along for the ride as myths are debunked and new secrets followed. This isn't a film that plays up the antics of the now rage faux/horror/documentary... it all feels very real and serious. And damn is it quite scary in certain scenes without doing very much. For once, the After Dark series went for minimal, and they hit a home run while (hopefully) divulging a great new talent.

All this space has been devoted to praise for the new Aussie wave, but what's even more interesting about this group of young filmmakers is their inter-connectedness. Edgerton and Michod have worked on several short films before- Michod as director and Joel and brother Nash starring. Ideas seem to flow freely between this cabal of artists, something that can only enrich future projects and keep Australian cinema strong for years to come. I look forward to whatever they do next.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Produced and Abandoned Part 8

Ten more titles deserving a proper region 1 DVD release:

1. A New Leaf (1971)- Elaine May is such an under appreciated talent, and it's promising that her name has been part of the recent rhetoric after her 1987 film "Ishtar" received a long overdue DVD copy. Her debut film, starring Walter Mattheau as a bankrupt curmudgeon who has to marry for money, is one of the best comedies of the past 30 years, full of zany wit and spot on performances. This does air on the Flix channel occasionally, so catch it there if you can. And while we're at it, where's "The Heartbreak Kid" as well? I plan on writing about may in greater detail later.
2. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)- Jacques Rivette's mid seventies masterpiece is very hard to see, popping up at the usual MOMA retrospectives of Rivette... and that's about it. VHS copies and region 2 copies go for big money online. I've seen pieces of Rivette's work, and while they can be a bit long in the tooth, they're also relentlessly fascinating slices of human interaction.
3. The Drifting Classroom (1987)- From the director who brought us "House", Nobuhiko Obayashi's described "fantasy" film sounds just as outrageous. After an earthquake, a school is transported to another dimension. While "House" was a bit of a letdown for me, Obayashi's cinema of fairy tale-like charm is ingratiating.
4. That Sinking Feeling (1980)- Bill Forsyth's directorial debut is a charming, warm, immensely funny layabout tale following 4 Glasgow youths who think up a get-rich-quick scheme. Forsyth is hugely under-represented on home video. Even his mainstream efforts, such as "Breaking In" with Burt Reynolds, are wonderful little treasures full of heart and connection.
5. Last Embrace (1979)- Jonathan Demme's ode to Hitchcock is just as lurid and obsessive about its imitation of the master as most of DePalma's work. Roy Scheider gives a great, wounded performance as an ex-CIA agent, delusional after the murder of his wife, and being hounded by ancient Jewish death threats. Miklos Rozsa's score, Demme's subtle shifts in point of view and a grand finale on the edge of a waterfall all add up to a worthy Hitchcock rip-off.
6. Angel (1982)- After watching "Ondine" recently, it coccured to me that director Neil Jordan is a filmmaker who creates films that could easily spiral out of control.... but don't. Remember "In Dreams"... Robert Downey Jr as a killer on some sort of apple farm? Weird, but somehow it all hung together. "Ondine" does the same, reaching some pretty amazing heights of fantasy and fiction, love and understanding between father and daughter and fairy tale. "Angel" is his debut film and I can't remember seeing or hearing much about it. Maybe its time.
7. The Thief of Paris (1965)- Early Louis Malle starring Jean Paul Belmondo who burglers the houses of wealthy Parisians. There are Italian DVD imports out there and I've read that TCM has shown a print in the last few years. I recently got my hands on Malle's "Black Moon" and would love to see this one as well.
8. Ivans XTC (2000)- Anyone remember this film? Roger Ebert favorably reviewed it and it's regarded as the first fully produced film in HD. Starring Danny Huston, the film is described as an update of Tolstoy in modern day Hollywood.
9. The Silent One (1973)- I love Lino Ventura as an actor. In the 70's he produced a number of films with French director Claude Pinoteau, the best of them being "Jig Saw" with Angie Dickinson. This film, released in 1973, stars Ventura as a French scientist caught up in international intrigue, again directed by Pinoteau.
10. Alex In Wonderland (1970)- Paul Mazursky's comedy starring Donald Sutherland as a director is one of the few Mazursky 70's films not on DVD. It will get a showing on TCM later this month, though, so its not all bad bews.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Je t'aime, je t'aime

For a filmmaker as concerned about the vagaries of time, memory and regret as Alain Resnais, it's a preconceived notion that he would eventually make a film dealing specifically about time travel. That's the main case with "Je t'aime, je t'aime", a film about a man (Claude Rich) trapped in the limbo of his life exactly one year ago. But this ain't "Back To the Future". Resnais' film is a fractured, studied and oblique effort that requires some patience and a bit of investigation as Resnais jumbles up images, ideas and sounds backwards and forwards. Never one to rely on formal or linear storytelling, "Je t'aime, je t'aime" is one of Resnais' most challenging pieces, and with "Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Muriel" and "Last Year At Marienbad" already under his belt by the time this film was released in 1968, that's saying something.

"Je t'aime, je t'aime" begins with Claude waking up in a hospital after his attempt at suicide. He's approached by a group of scientists and doctors (who feel he is the perfect candidate as a man with nothing to lose) and asked to participate in their project. Claude agrees and he's introduced to their experiment, which involves time travel. The group will send him back in time exactly one year ago, for one minute. As always, something goes wrong and Claude is stuck in the chamber for much longer than that. Resnais aggressively cuts back and forth between mundane images of Claude working, his vacation with his girlfriend as he emerges from scuba diving (in a scene that's replayed at least a dozen times), the squabbles that led up to his suicide and other moments in his life. There's very little explanation, and after awhile the images flood over the viewer as we try and ascertain the timeline and reasoning behind this jig-saw of memories and seemingly benign interactions. One cut can travel years or seconds... and in Resnais world there's often very little difference. This characteristic has been evident in Resnais work for years. In his 1984 film, "Love Unto Death", the film opens with a man having a seizure and his wife crying over him as he lays still. The next scene, the wife is crying downstairs, trying to figure out who to call and what to say. The husband then wanders downstairs, yawns and apologizes for falling asleep. For the remainder of the film, Resnais watches this couple's interaction with their friends as they question life and death. Is the man really dead? Is he simply a projection for the rest of the characters to ponder the fragility of life? There's no overt explanation, and while "Love Unto Death" is certainly one of Resnais' more glacial films, it's a single edit that casts doubt over the other 90 minutes. In "Je t'aime, je t'aime" the edits reel one back and forth between reality and memory with startling immediacy, continually posing ideas and answers before taking it away the next.

I admit, I've long been an admirer of the loopy idea of time travel. And while there have been some interesting cases on the subject, I'm not sure the whole theory actually holds together. Yet the idea of us being able to willfully change something in our past to avoid future harm or humiliation is probably deeply embedded in human nature. "Je t'aime, je t'aime" posits a radically different idea, turning the sci-fi genre on its nouvelle vague ear and draining the excitement out of the possibility. For Claude, being stuck in time feels like bland, tormented hell as he lives out simple moments of his life over and over, with all signs poitning to the fact that Claude will probably still attempt suicide. As a final, tongue-in-cheek joke, the small mouse that was the experiment forebearer to Claude continues to wheel around in his cage.... both animal and man confined to their own fishbowls with little hope of escape.

Friday, November 26, 2010

New Stuff


While I could identify a few CGI shots in Tony Scott’s fast-paced, adrenalized new film “Unstoppable”, a good majority of it looks and feels like old fashioned film making with tension wrought out of simple heroics. Settling in with his muse, Denzel Washington, Scott tones down his hyper-real style that reached its apex in “Man On Fire” and “Domino” (an extreme guilty pleasure if there ever was one) and keeps things a bit more simple, though his roving camera still induces some moments of ‘please-slow-down’ theatrics long after the audience gets the point. In small ways, Scott has the ability to carve out human moments for his often cardboard archetypes- an old CIA spook feeding his cat in “Enemy of the State“…. A hooker writing you’re so cool on a napkin in “True Romance”….the scrambled letters on a refrigerator issuing a warning of supreme guilt in “déjà vu”. It’s easy to get carried away in the film tints and lens flares of his work, but what’s always brought me back to his work are these little moments of gentle interaction. “Unstoppable” carries many of these moments between Washington and co-star Chris Pine as they relentlessly try to slow down an out of control train barreling for Scranton PA. I cared about them. I desperately wanted them to succeed. It’s this attention to character that makes “Unstoppable” special. Oh, and it’s a pretty damn good action film as well. I’ve long been a Tony Scott apologist, but “Unstoppable” is his best film in years.

Client 9

Alex Gibney’s documentary on the sex scandal of New York governor Eliot Spitzer clearly resides on one side of the political fence- the conspiracy theorist idea that Spitzer made one too many Republican enemies and they spent loads of money to usurp his seemingly untouchable image. I usually don’t appreciate a documentary that takes one side… then it becomes propaganda and Gibney is not a filmmaker who reaches to land in the neutral zone. Still, “Client 9” is a very good film that interviews all the main players, including Spitzer himself who fully accepts responsibility and places blame on himself, even if Gibney is reluctant to do so. Tracking the resignation from two parallel stories, the film spends just as much time on the creation and evolution of the escort service business as it does on Spitzer’s campaign to bring justice to Big Money fat cats and fraudulent insurance companies. While its fascinating to watch Spitzer’s history of bucking the system and attacking hedge fund moguls, it’s even more interesting to hear how a New York artist stumbled into the job of booking high class call girls or the consistently empty headed ramblings of the Emperor’s Club co founder Cece. “Client 9” is a fully realized documentary that teaches as well as entertains. One sided or not, that’s the best we can ask for these days in some documentaries.

Morning Glory

Roger Michell is an interesting director, taking standard genre fare and tweaking them into little gems. His latest film, “Morning Glory” is yet another wonderful surprise and one of the best films of the year. Granted, a majority of the film’s success hinges on Rachel McAdams high-strung, perky performance as a TV producer grasping at straws at a basement-run early morning news show, and for me, she won me over. Even more amazing, though, are the supporting performances by Harrison Ford (as a gruff, been-there-done-that anchor who had me groaning at first, then joyously caught up in his role the next minute), John Pankow as McAdams’ suffering assistant, Jeff Goldblum who delivers every single line with precision and even Patrick Wilson as the love interest who steps outside the usual boundaries of the rom-com archetype. “Morning Glory” is witty, warm and very funny- just watch the background in certain scenes and see the weird extras milling around. I love it when a film totally exceeds my expectations like this.

Fair Game

Doug Liman‘s “Fair Game” charts the true story of the ‘outing’ of CIA operative Valerie Plame with Naomi Watts looking beautiful in pants suits and Sean Penn dancing through liberal, Republican bashing hoops. “Fair Game” isn’t a bad film, it just feels lifeless in the way it tracks the bureaucratic plodding that caused Plame to be vilified in the open press due to her husband’s anti-war sentiments that were published. Families are torn apart, operatives are left “open” in the field and the political standoff begins. As someone who followed this story daily when it broke a few years ago, the story feels right yet Liman’s herky-jerky cinematography feels borrowed from his Bourne trilogy with a splash of “Green Zone” and “All the President’s Men” thrown in for good measure.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's In the Netflix Queue #30

1. In Vanda's Room- The artist of note who seemed to blaze out of art house obscurity over the past 3-4 years is Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, and thanks to a 3 disc boxset, some of his work is finally available. This film, made in 2000, runs at 3 hours and is described as a portrait of the slums around Lisbon and its drug addled inhabitants. I've heard so much about Costa, I'm looking forward to judging his work on my own.
2. Tallhotblonde- Barbet Schroeder's documentary about cyberspace and crime sounds intriguing. Along with the recent "Catfish" and Ondi Timoner's highly absorbing cyber doc "We Live In Public", I think we're beginning to see a new wave of films that have embraced the myths and invisible dangers of this ubiquitous thing we call the Internet.
3. Altered States- I've kind of been on a Ken Russell kick lately, finally getting the opportunity to see "The Devils". While I'm not a complete convert to his maniacal sense of narrative and out of control zooms/pans, I'll give this early 80's film a chance.
4. Taxidermia- I get the feeling Gyrogy Palfi's absurdist black comedy will make for a grotesque double feature with the previous Russell film. "This black comedy spanning three generations of men serves as an absurdist journey through the history of Hungary, from World War II through the communist era to the present. In postwar Hungary, a depraved hospital orderly spawns an outrageously obese son, Kalman (Gergely Trócsányi), who in turn goes on to raise his own progeny, a skinny boy (Marc Bischoff) freakishly obsessed with taxidermy."
5. Ossos- Second Pedro Costa film.
6. Veronika Voss- I've seen most of Fassbinder's films, yet this tale about a faded German film star's downfall with drugs and old age slipped by me. Fassbinder is very hit or miss for me. I'm guessing this is just as broad as Frank Perry's "Mommie Dearest", but we'll see. This is also one of those films that's been floating back and forth in my queue for well over 3 years.
7. Town Without Pity- Slowly but surely, some 'lost' Joseph Losey films have been making their way onto DVD, and this is surely one. "An alcoholic, David Graham (Michael Redgrave), finds the strength within himself to attempt to surmount his problems so he can rescue his son from the death penalty. But he's haunted every step of the way by his nemesis, Robert Stanford (Leo McKern)." Also on tap in the next couple weeks is Losey's "The Prowler" and if you haven't seen it, "These Are the Damned" made its way onto a double disc and it's a very disconcerting film about radioactive children.
8. Detective Story- Ok, Takashi Miike really is one of the most prolific filmmakers today. I know people say that about this person or that person alot, but I mean it. Netflix recently added some 15 more titles of his. This guy makes 3-4 films a year. "Detective Story" is described as a murder thriller in which a P.I. and a businessman search for a serial killer who collects the organs of his victims. Yes, I added all 15 titles to my queue and will continue to work my way through his varied (and at times sickening) output.
9. Britannia Hospital- I know next to nothing about this '82 film except its directed by the under appreciated Lindsay Anderson.
10. One From the Heart- Probably the most mainstream film on this list, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and deemed a clolossal failure in the early 80's. I've never seen it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

70's Bonanza: Footprints On the Moon

Luigi Bazzoni's "Footprints On the Moon" (aka "Le Orme") fits in neatly with the gaudy, fever-dream like films of the Italian genre benders of the 70's. Part psychological horror and part science fiction, "Footprints On the Moon" is a unique and rewarding experience that opens itself up to multiple interpretations.

Alice (Florinda Bolkan) is being plagued by dreams of a spaceman being left alone to die on the moon. Cut to Klaus Kinski screaming something about needing a new guinea pig. After she shows up for work as a U.N. interpreter, she's told she has missed the last three days of work. At home, Alice finds a postcard from a hotel on the relaxing island named Garma and goes there in search of her missing time. From there, "Footprints On the Moon" spirals into a puzzling narrative of doppelgangers, little girls who seem to know everything and Vitorio Storaro's eclectic color palette cinematography. Bazzoni seems to be charting out something about the collapse of Alice's mental state, and that's just one interpretation. While the film eludes any easy answers, it does present a whirling atmosphere of suspicion and past trauma that would make anyone a bit paranoid. As Alice, Bolkan is wonderful, portraying a confused and slightly sympathetic woman who may be coming apart at the seem yet still wanders through the maze of impending revelations with an icy facade.

As mentioned above, so many of the 70's Italian films were playing and subverting genre. Westerns morphed into gangster films and giallo films were spinning new and bloody ideas off the black and white horror films of the American studio system. "Footprints On the Moon" excels in this fascination of blending types. It could have easily rode off the rails into a giallo flick like Bazzoni's previous film "The Fifth Cord", but it stays locked in the claustrophobic search for Alice's troubling memory loss and nightmares. If anything, "Footprints On the Moon" is so good because it remains just plain weird at times. And anyone whose had that dream where they're running from someone but seem to get stuck in that slow motion non movement will shudder a bit at the finale.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

DVD Shout Out: I'm Gonna Explode

Gerardo Naranjo's "I'm Gonna Explode" is an apt title.... a film about the turbulent angst that builds in all of us during our teenage years and eventually leaks out in destructive or passive-aggressive ways. For Naranjo's two young lovers, Roman (Juan Pablo Santiago) and Maru (Maria Deschamps), life is almost unbearable and they beat up a security guard, steal a gun, and hide out on the roof of Roman's wealthy father's mansion, playing games with their families below and imagining themselves against the adult world. Things do turn tragic, but Naranjo takes his time getting there, building up an elusive tone that stands as a brash examination of youth, bracketed by the indie music of Bright Eyes and a bit of Georges Delerue which adds a dimension of fatalism to the entire thing.

Naranjo isn't a newcomer to the indie scene. His previous feature "Drama/Mex", which I haven't seen, made some waves in the critical waters. His addition to Azazel Jacobs' wonderful "The GoodTimeskid" included acting, writing and shooting that film. Watching "I'm Gonna Explode", I get the feeling of a major emerging talent, much like I did with Cary Fukunaga and "Sin Nombre". Both are films that gently crest in and out of French new wave influences with modern sensibilities and attitudes about youth. They both look incredible as well.

It's easy to get swept up in the 'screw-you' contempt for anyone adult in "I'm Gonna Explode", but Naranjo molds Maru and Roman as deceptively smarter than that. With both sets of their families worrying in the house beneath them, they play act on the roof, Roman being the more abrupt of the two and Maru along for the ride with her exciting new boyfriend. Maru seems to understand when playtime is over, but its Roman who doesn't want it to end. As Godard said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, and Naranjo holds to that credo in true nouvelle vague fashion.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If I Programmed a Film Festival #2

Day 1

****A Vengeful Man Marathon Part 1:

1. Rolling Thunder (1977)- William Devane as a Vietnam vet kicking ass and taking names after the murder of his family.

2. Dead Man's Shoes (2004)- Shane Meadows' hugely under appreciated revenge flick about a soldier returning home to England and taking revenge on the gang of thugs who hurt his mentally challenged brother. Gritty anomaly timed to some shoe gazing music.

3. Sitting Target (1972)- Hard to find and violent revenge flick with Oliver Reed going after his wife and her lover.

Creep (2004)- ****Subterranean horror triple feature DTV auteur Christopher Smith's eerie horror masterpiece has to be seen to be believed. It goes to some extreme places.

Marebito (2005)- ****Subterranean horror triple feature K horror film about a photographer who finds something not human in the subway (or is it hell) and brings it back to his apartment.

Day 2:

Raw Meat (1972)- ****Subterranean horror film triple feature Rounding out the triple feature is the ultimate underground horror movie. Not for the squeamish.

****A Vengeful Man Marathon Part 2:

1. Hennessey (1975)- Rod Steiger as an Irishman hellbent on revenge after his family is caught up and killed in an IRA squabble on the streets. A bit uneven at times, but it does the genre justice.

2. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)- Another underrated British masterpiece by old schooler Mike Hodges. Clive Owen is aces as the quiet killer on the track of his brother's killers.

3. Point Blank (1967)- After watching the imitators, it's time to see the one that started it all.

The Good, The Bad and the Weird (2009)- Insane and kinetic South Korean action/western/crime/fantasy film that blends so many genres and has such fun that this selection will surely stir up the audience.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Top 5 List: Terror At the Ballpark

Well, the 2010 baseball season is over and my Rangers juts ran out of gas against a very good (and perhaps underrated) Giants team. This is definitely the worst time of year for me. There's just a huge void that arrives at night while channel surfing. No baseball anywhere. In honor of the 2010 season, here's 5 five films that prominently feature the sports ballpark.

5. For Love of the Game- A very good, and largely ignored, Sam Raimi film that spins a love story in flashback as an aging pitcher (Kevin Costner) pitches a perfect game. Psychological terror, to be sure. I don't know what it is about Costner and baseball films, but they just always work magnificently. It's not a perfect film by any stretch of the word, but it's constant inter cutting between the actual game, Costner's thoughts on the past 4-5 years of his life, and the mistakes he made in a relationship with Kelly Preston, all build up to an emotionally exhilarating finale. And it features John C. Reilly as a catcher. Rent it today with "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" and really pine for the 2011 baseball season.

4. The Town- While I found Ben Affleck's film to be a lazy, exhaustive crime effort, it does have the brass to place its final heist in the bowels of historic Fenway Park. The overall impression is doomed a bit by Affleck's incomprehensible editing and directing of the shoot-out, but it still remains an interesting locale for a been-there-done-that trope. Boston overall is the choice du jour lately for crime movies, and "The Town" banks on its most cherished site to end with a bang.

3. Experiment In Terror- Yes, Blake Edwards did much more than comedies and "The Pink Panther", and this obscure little 1963 film is outstanding. Cited as a major influence on David Lynch, "Experiment In Terror" is basically like watching a Lynch film from 1963. From the town name of Twin Peaks to the emergence of a sinister killer in a bathroom that echoes that of Robert Blake's white-faced weirdo at a party in "Lost Highway", "Experiment In Terror" feels like a film way ahead of its time. And the use of San Francisco's Candlestick Park towards the end of the film between killer and victim (a wonderful Lee Remick) uses the crowds of a baseball park efficiently. How many times have you lost someone in a crowd and looked around as the sea of people wash you one direction? Edwards uses this confusion to heighten the tension. A great film.

2. Hickey and Boggs- Actor and star Robert Culp directed this grimy early 70's crime film with great veracity and it shows in the film's setpiece at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Private detectives Culp and Bill Cosby are on the hunt for a girl and a suitcase full of money. So are local Los Angeles hoods and they all culminate in the empty Coliseum stadium the day after a Rams game. It's a brilliantly edited scene that has people spying on other people, intricately cutting between bagman, detectives, snipers and the cautious girl with a suitcase. I had to rewind this scene twice just to marvel in the fluid exposition of silent dialogue cut short by rapid gunfire. Sadly not available on DVD, "Hickey and Boggs" is a terrific edition to the lazy, sunlit noirs of the early 70's L.A. like "The Long Goodbye" and "The Nickel Ride". Watch for it on TV.

1. Black Sunday- Did anyone really doubt Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" would be left off this list? Probably the ultimate paranoid sports movie in the history of film, Bruce Dern is gangbusters as a warped blimp pilot out to kill everyone during the Super Bowl. Intertwining footage of Super Bowl X between the Cowboys and Steelers with fictional footage using thousands of extras, Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" is a marvelous capstone to the over-the-top disaster films of the 70's.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shocktoberfest 2

Door 3

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1996 film “Door 3” (as in the number of a door and not the third in a trilogy) is more interesting for its ideas that will eventually surface in his later films than for its own outright creepiness. Basically, this is Kurosawa’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. An insurance saleswoman (Ryo Amamiya) travels to a non-descript office building, where she becomes seduced by the male client there,. She is then slowly stalked by a group of zombie women who spit out little green monsters. Yes, I realize the description sounds like a bad 50’s sci-fi, but this is nothing new for Kurosawa…. Recycling themes and bracketing them around his own distinct style (slow zooms, shadows, plastic sheeting etc). It is curious, though, because “Door 3” features the identical blueprint for a scene that would appear later in “Pulse”- the crab walk woman, although less freakish here, is rolled out with the same droning music and shot placement. “Door 3” is a minor work in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, yet it’s fun to see this talented filmmaker playing with ideas and images way before they became ingrained in the Japanese horror new wave.

The Entity

Barbara Hershey is attacked and repeatedly raped by an invisible force. Yes, I know that description sounds like a bad…. Well just bad. But Hershey’s performance is very good and director Sidney Furie handles the claptrap with straight determination and some genuine atmospheric thrills. More than an outright horror film, “The Entity” tosses around ideas about paranormal science versus psychotherapy in the role of the great Ron Silver as a therapist who sees Hershey’s violent episodes as something mental. Supposedly based on a real event in California in 1976, “The Entity” is actually a great little alternative to the pseudo-documentary falsehoods of the “Paranormal Activity” series. I only regret it’s taken me so long to catch up with it.


“Seizure“ (1974), the debut of director Oliver Stone, could be described as an early existential horror film. A group of people meet at the country house of a couple, Edmund (Jonathan Frid) and Nicole (Christina Pickles). Edmund, a novelist (described at the end of the film as the American Edgar Allan Poe) is being tormented by nightmares of a midget (Herve Villechazie, of “Fantasy Island” fame), mute strongman and Devil Queen (Martine Beswick). Once the guests arrive, these figments of his imagination come to life, break into the house and force the group to compete in deadly games until only one is left alive. Low budget to the extreme and marred by even worse visual standards (the version I saw was taken from a worn out VHS copy), there is a deviant mean streak to the film. This is the type of film that features wealthy Uncle Charley (Joseph Sirola) playing catch with Edmund’s son and tossing the ball way over his head with a sinister chuckle. That kind of mean. And in that regard, the empty, soulless existence of its party goers is refracted in the vengeance carried out by the three evil beings. Stone, who also helped write the film, seems to be making a case that the unhappiness created by the morbid author has literally come to life to exact retribution. “Seizure” is low on gore and at times a bit confusing, but it’s a horror film with some understated ideas that aim for much higher than its shocker grind house categorization.

A Nightmare On Elm Street

I completely understand the Hollywood machine’s intention to reformat classic horror thrillers for an updated audience, but Samuel Bayer’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” just landed with a strong thud for me. The filmmaking is lazy, the thrills are coordinated with no tension and it features the same burned-out-bulb aesthetic that dots the landscape of other Michael Bay produced modern remakes… see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.


Now here’s a nice surprise. Going into cinematographer/director James Roberson’s “Superstition”, I knew little about it. Also known as “The Witch”, this is one creepy, nasty horror film that has no qualms about wiping out everyone, including children. An old house- home to an especially violent exorcism over 300 years ago- continues its spiral of evil today. Left to the local church, a minister (James Houghton) tries to restore it before another minister (Larry Pennel) and his family move in. Needless to say, the witch isn’t happy. Borrowing liberally from “The Exorcist” in a scene that features its own terrifying exorcism and refusing to show the evil witch in full-on glory, “Superstition” generates its thrills through Dario Argento like point of view shots of a blackened, clawed hand that is just as efficient. “Superstition” just may become one of my annual watches. And any horror film that features its first kill as an exploding head in a microwave can’t be all bad.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Revisiting the Faves: Fearless

"Fearless" ranked as my number 4 favorite film of 1993.

Peter Weir, like the best directors, is a chameleon, able to adapt and change his point of view to align with a wide variety of projects. He's also Australian, but a film like "Fearless"- which trades in deep grief and remorse- is a supremely universal idea. Starring Jeff Bridges as a plane crash survivor who walks away from the crash, saves a dozen others, then drives to a hotel and sleeps for days is immediately set up as a conflicted character. Is he suffering from amnesia? Is he shell shocked? We soon find out that he's probably all of these, but he has also come to the realization that he may be invincible, scoffing at the grief support groups that fellow survivors attend and standing on the edge of a high rise building, daring God to kill him. The tone of "Fearless" is, well, fearless. It's also a film that deals with some very dark moments. As a fellow survivor, Rosie Perez spirals into a deep depression at the loss of her infant son during the crash. There's an especially pungent moment during one of the grief counseling sessions (led by psychiatrist John Turturro) where a flight attendant confronts Perez and offers her condolences. Throughout the film, Weir and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, give us harrowing glimpses inside the plane before the crash and this same flight attendant instructed Perez to buckle herself up first then hold tightly onto her baby. "Everything will be alright". It's a recurring statement throughout the pre-crash chaos that haunts most of the survivors post-crash. I can only imagine the horrific nightmares and memories one would have after such an event, and "Fearless" isn't afraid to go deep beneath the surface and mine the jaded emotions of Bridges and Perez.

Weir, director of such films as "Picnic At Hanging Rock", "Gallipoli" and "Dead Poets Society" is an interesting figure. Rotating between art house fare and more mainstream efforts, "Fearless" seems to find the best of both worlds. It plays like a guilt-chamber piece directed by Ingmar Bergman one second then an idiosyncratic indie romance the next. As Bridges' suffering and confused wife, Isabella Rossellini brings strong gravity to the outsider's view on the catastrophe. She watches her husband spend hours upstairs in his study drawing unique pictures and facilitates between the idea of wanting to cure his erratic behavior and furiously wondering if he's having an affair with Perez. If nothing else, 'Fearless" is probably the best example of post traumatic stress disorder one could imagine. And the ending- if you haven't seen it- is a gut punch that stands as one of the most moving finales of the last two decades.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010



“Carlos”, Olivier Assayas’ five hour terrorist epic about the 20 plus years in the life of international criminal Carlos the Jackal moves at breakneck speed and continually energizes the screen. Broken into three parts, Part 1 is the most difficult to absorb since Assayas and screenwriter Dan Franck open immediately in the action with Carlos already established in the international field of terrorism, bouncing between countries and spinning four or five different languages. There are so many characters introduced, so many quick lines of dialogue that explain away a convoluted history of governmental involvement, and an endless parade of female companions that it’s a bit daunting to find your bearings. Parts 2 and 3 settle in more, find a niche and hum along beautifully, though, especially once Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) finds his revolutionary soul mate in German forger Magda (Nora von Waldstatten). My only problem with “Carlos” and more specifically the new genre of epic terrorist ‘biographs’ (think “Che”) is a nagging reluctance to accept the flattery of their murderous main characters… and that’s exactly what “Carlos” and “Che” express despite their director’s nonchalant liberal statements. Assayas flaunts Carlos flagrant debauchery, creating the subconscious impact that a lifestyle of callously murder innocent victims is equivalent to rock star status. A police procedural in the most nominal of terms, “Carlos” is mostly about the extravagant lifestyle he leads at the expense of murder. This is nothing new in film, of course, its just hard to fully go with it. The police do win in the end (kidnapping and returning Carlos to French soil where he serves a lifetime sentence today) but its still hard to fully buy into a film that sets a bank bombing to grungy 80’s new wave. A bit self-serving to say the least.

Never Let Me Go

Despite the somewhat detached and cerebral critical reaction to Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go”, I found it to be hugely moving and one of the best films of the year. Adapted by the great (and under appreciated) Alex Garland from a much beloved novel, “Never Let Me Go” places a sensitive love triangle within an alternate history science fiction tale. Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are tremendous as the group of young people facing a shaky future. When the film requires each one to wilt literally and figuratively, their eyes hold the screen. They give brave, heartbreaking performances. “Never Let Me Go” is a film about a distorted past and present day in Britain where medical science has prolonged human life to over 100 years and the school of Hailsham is born where children are cultivated for much darker purposes when they grow older. Just like our own youthful days, urban legends are born (such as idea that if a child wanders beyond the boundary, they will end up with their hands and feet cut off) and weird ideas for survival are propagated later in life. The scene where the adult Mulligan and Garfield approach a supposed “art dealer” to grant a wish is handled with delicate intelligence, as is the entire film. A must see.

Let Me In

After the shaky-cam, gutter aesthetic of director Matt Reeves via “Cloverfield”, the idea of sitting through his totally pointless remake of the great Swedish vampire movie “Let the Right One In” seemed like a daunting challenge. Not so much. From the opening scene of a line of police sirens slowly snaking through a snow-covered mountainside, Reeves is in total visual command. Not only does “Let Me In” look terrific, it’s a comparable companion piece to Alfredson’s original in mood and tone. It even seems to up the ante in the acting division, as young “Kick Ass” star Chloe Moertz and Kodi Smit-McPhee are dynamic together whenever they’re on screen, reaching heights in their quiet moments together that few adult film actors attain. Sadly, I think “Let Me In” has already exited from mainstream theaters, failing to find an audience.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Dracula Has Risen From the Grave

The third Dracula incarnation from the Hammer studios and director Terence Fisher is the best. Christopher Lee returns as the master of darkness after skipping the second film, and his presence was highly missed. This time around he seeks revenge on the priest who hung a crucifix on his castle door and ends up terrorizing a young couple. All Hammer films have a distinctive look, but “Dracula Has Risen…” frames the character of Dracula in a beautiful and expressive manner, full of gaudy yellows, bright reds and nauseating greens for full effect. His entrances are especially elegant as well. And just when the wholesome, innocent Maria (Veronica Carlson) arrives, one knows she’ll be a rapt target for Dracula. The sensuality (and even kinkiness) of this Dracula tale is turned up and it all makes for a wonderfully atmospheric experience.

The Silent Scream

Unfortunately, the film’s opening scene- lighted as if it was Conrad Hall shooting “The Godfather” and timed to the super slow motion images of a group of policemen running into a house and discovering a grisly murder scene- isn’t sustained for the remainder of the film. There’s still much to be appreciated in Denny Harris “Psycho” rip off, though, including Italian scream queen Barbara Steele in a weirdly psychotic role and the director’s love for black glove Argento-style first person death scenes.

A Day of Judgment

A horror film in the most skeletal of terms, Chris Reynolds early 80’s obscura is more of a religious allegory. A small town in depression era 1920’s is rampant with its townsfolk breaking the commandments. There’s the local clerk having an affair with his boss’s wife, the gas station owner who schemes to put away his mother and father in a retirement home and the local banker who places the almighty dollar above all else. Things are amorally bankrupt until the Grim Reaper comes into town. Obviously wanting to be taken seriously, “A Day of Judgment” drags a bit in places, slowly forming the background of its characters before the Reaper makes his presence known. No amount of imagination is left in the tank, though, when the Reaper does eventually show up. Disguised in very little light, director Reynolds creates an eerie specimen that feels like the forbearer to Freddy Kruger.

Humanoids From the Deep

From the stable of Corman classics, director Barbara Peeters (that must be a pseudonym, no?) takes a low budget idea and spins an entertaining low budget yarn, complete with dismembered teens and lots of gunfire as large latex-suit fish monsters wreck havoc on a Pacific coastal town. The underlying theme of scientific research gone horribly wrong is glossed over. In the right hands, “Humanoids From the Deep” could have been a terrific eco-thriller, but c’mon, this is 1979 and the film wants to entertain and shock. Newly released on Blu-ray, I suppose the film has its share of supporters.

The House Where Evil Dwells

Think of a Japanese “Amityville Horror”. A couple (the luscious Susan George and Edward Albert) move into a Tokyo house where a hideous act of murder and hara-kiri were performed. The spirits of the troubled threesome slowly possess the new couple, driving them to act out their fatal denouements two hundred years later. Part of the scares in this film are efficient, but more of it is laughable. The weird scene in which a group of crabs torment a young girl is alternatively grotesque and side splittingly funny.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On First and Lasts

The Texas Rangers did it. Pushing it to five games on an opposing team's home turf isn't the ideal way to pull out a series win, but they did it. I officially have no fingernails left.

But it's all bittersweet. My family and I buried my father this week. Honestly, if the Rangers hadn't won today, I don't know if I could have dealt with everything. No, that's a lie. I could and would. When life throws you a curve ball, things like baseball and movies become menial activities. They help us cope.... take our mind off the loss... allow us to zone out and live in a fictionalized world where we can act like participants and believe we affect the outcome.... but its all nonexistent when someone you love dies. Yet its fitting that the Rangers won today. My dad is the one who transposed his love of baseball onto me and my family. An ardent admirer of the Yankees- and as my mom said tonight, it's going to be hard to root against either team in the ALCS- my father was the one who first put a baseball in my hand, watched me pitch throughout junior high and nervously sulked whenever I pitched in a game. As a kid, growing up in the small town of McGregor about 20 miles south of Waco, the stories from old friends of his are pouring in... describing long days of playing baseball and of the time the Yankees played an exhibition game in that small town in the mid 50's and my dad ran down the street, eventually catching up with the Yankees bus and having them all sign a baseball that sits on my parent's shelf today.

We collected baseball cards together (and he generously bought my entire collection when I was 12 or 13 and felt as if I'd outgrown the hobby, thereby keeping the cards in the family) and purchased cards off Ebay until his death. He was a hoarder... a fervernt list maker (one should see the stacks of notebooks with lists, want lists etc) and a history lover as he earned his bachelor's degree in the subject. He also passed over his love of movies to me. I'll never forget him coming home one day and watching a movie called "Goodfellas". I was 14 at the time and he told me I would appreciate this movie. I watched it, and that's the first movie that I remember recognizing a commanding presence behind the camera, exposing cinema as something more than my repeat viewings of "Pete's Dragon" or "Popeye" could ever reveal. He took me to R rated movies such as "Bull Durham" and "Beverly Hills Cop", understanding and respecting the fact that I understood the difference in artificial realities and the world we lived in. He respected me and I always loved him for that. Even further, I vividly remember the nights we'd saunter up to the church on the hill from our house, having a clear view of a drive-in theater across the highway, watching "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and trying to recall the dialogue together. It's the small moments such as these that feel so insignificant at the time, but reap huge benefits today.

My father wasn't always the best communicator and he was unconditionally hard on himself mentally for various reasons. My mother said he often commented that he had not been a good father. I would not have wanted any other father. His spirit, his generosity and his respect for intelligence have been so deeply instilled in my brother and I, that his influence is without question. My family will move on... we already miss our father dearly, but it's up to us to lead our lives in his wonderful example. Love ya dad.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

70's Bonanza: The Medusa Touch

Jack Gold's "The Medusa Touch" would make a fine double bill alongside Jerzy Skolimowski's "The Shout". Both films feature confused men who believe their inner thoughts and outward emotions can cause disaster and death. While "The Shout" is certainly more of an avant garde affair, "The Medusa Touch" is a Saturday afternoon type of serial that plays inoffensively with its heavy subject. In fact, director Jack Gold did most of his work in television, and "The Medusa Touch" is specifically lacking in cinematic qualities. This doesn't mean it's bad by any stretch of the means, it just trades in a flat, matter-of-fact editing and visual style that loses nothing in translation from big screen to small. And with high caliber stars such as Richard Burton, Lee Remick and Lino Ventura, "The Medusa Touch" understands that name recognition is the way to go.

A novelist (Burton) begins a therapy session with a psychiatrist (Remick) in which he discusses his ability to cause mayhem through telekinesis. His history and story-within-a-flashback (including his admissions to Remick) are gradually investigated by a detective (Ventura) after he's found murdered in his apartment. Ventura, as the pesky, dedicated detective receives the largest amount of screen time, and it's his perspective on the supposed mystical ability of Burton that fuels the story. But unlike "The Shout" which casts an aura of psychological wonder over the whole affair, "The Medusa Touch" is much more simplistic and fairy-tale like. The denouement, which features a crumbling church on scale with the hokey disaster films of the 70's, lays no doubt at the feet of Burton's psychic powers, reveling in the destruction of collapsing paper-mache blocks and overacting on behalf of the poor minions stuck inside the building. Again, "The Medusa Touch" does not strive for serious art-film acclaim. It's fun, weirdly different and a great example of a great actor slumming a bit.

My experiences with Burton and Ventura are far more knowing than that of Remick. Recently spotlighted on TCM in a variety of roles, her performance in "The Medusa Touch" is especially interesting. As the cold, calculated, buttoned-up psychiatrist who is forced to keep Burton's secrets, she exudes a simmering tension. The narrative eventually explains this tension, but it's a good performance in a film that could have easily been overshadowed by the thespian precision of Burton. Sadly, "The Medusa Touch" has been lost in the annuls of home video. Like the previously highlighted post on Kenji Fukusaku's "Virus", "The Medusa Touch" is big, goofy Saturday afternoon fun.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Breakout Artist 2010: Andrew Garfield

Anytime an actor has two films currently in circulation, as well as being pegged to play Spiderman in the upcoming franchise reboot, it's easy to say he's pretty much made it as an actor. But before "The Social Network" opened to critical acclaim this past weekend, Andrew Garfield probably wasn't identifiable as a house hold name just yet. And in reality, even though I'm probably in the minority for not doing handstands over "The Social Network", Garfield has been universally singled out as the real main character of Fincher's icy trip into early 2000's dot com explosions headed by geek sociopath Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). Garfield's portrayal of Zuckerberg's college chum, initial partner and money investor Eduardo Savarin holds the audience key to empathy in an otherwise distant examination of upper class Harvard blowhards. It's also his scene, when he realizes he's been pinched out of the financial windfall of the now international Facebook idea, that holds the most zing in "The Social Network". Garfield's expression of betrayal and momentary reclamation of his emotions is a thing of beauty in a film that chooses to avoid emotions. This is why "best supporting actor" awards were invented.

Garfield first popped up on the radar in 2007 as the troubled youth running from his past in John Crowley's understated "Boy A". Encompassing each frame of that film with a tense presence, Garfield projected the uncomfortable sense that the camera couldn't hold him if he wanted to dash away. Yet when the film called for him to settle into the pose of a well-adjusted twenty something as he goes on dates with a fellow co-worker, Garfield immediately flipped a switch and turned the dangerous into something timid, unsure of himself and tongue tied. It may seem easy to portray a damaged soul, but Garfield takes things to another level in "Boy A", aided by a superb script and melancholy finale.

After his role as the intellectual doubter in Robert Redford's "Lions For Lambs", Garfield's next amazing performance came in "1974" of the "Red Riding Trilogy", a triplet of films so brutal, so well structured and intimate that I watched them in a complete five hour sitting and they still remain as one of the very best films of 2010. While each episode has its strengths, Garfield kicks the torrid affair off as new investigative reporter Eddie Dunsford who comes into the town of Yorkshire, prodding his stagnant peers and the local police to look beyond the obvious when a series of schoolgirls are found murdered over 6 years. It's his investigation that eventually emanates through the next two films, "1980" and "1983", uncovering webs of police corruption and perversion. Garfield makes a convincing turn from cocky journalist to bloodied avenger, but again, it's the warmer moments that define his performance. During his investigation, Garfield comes in contact with the mother of one of the murdered girls (another actress on the rise both overseas and here, Rebecca Hall). His questioning about the young girl's death butt up against the sorrow of a mother, and it's a refreshing compromise made by both actors in the scene that plays out with real emotion instead of a rote narrative. For what its worth, Garfield is great here, but Rebecca Hall breaks my heart in this film.

I've skipped over two performances, namely the weird (what else) Terry Gilliam film "The Imaganarium of Doctor Parnassus" which finds Garfield playing the mortal dreamer in a universe of imagination. It's not a bad performance by any means, its just always hard to find the acting propensity in Gilliam's overly decorated and saturated fairy tales. The other current film in rotation for Garfield is Mark Romanek's "Never Let Me Go", which I'll hopefully catch later this week. Judging by the previews, Garfield gives another knockout performance.

Reading through viewer comments about "The Social Network" on several blogs these past few days, it's clear that audience enthusiasm is lagging behind critical appreciation a bit, but everyone singles out Garfield's performance. In just three years, Garfield has materialized into something special. I predict a certain gold statue in his life very soon.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Whole Lotta Reviews

The Town

Desperate to be a muscular, modern take on “Heat”, Ben Affleck’s sophomore film suffers from many of the same faults as his debut “Gone Baby Gone”…. except this time he doesn’t have the nuanced acting graces of brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monahan. Working in the Boston crime milieu (which, by the way, is getting old reeeaaly fast), the problem with “The Town” is twofold. First, the aforementioned acting nuance is gone, replaced by over the top performances of first rate actors like Jeremy Renner and Pete Postelwaithe who emphatically carry their dialogue. By the time Affleck and Renner come to blows in front of graveyard, in broad daylight with guns blazing, my interest checked out. Secondly, the script by Affleck and fellow writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard attempt to create empathy for the criminals, while the inherently more calculating character of Jon Hamm (as the FBI agent tracking the crew) is treated as a bumbling key stone cop, full of taunting letters left on his car and an interrogation that plays up Affleck’s smarter-than-thou attitude. One thing can be said for “Heat”- Michael Mann understands how to create multi-faceted characters on both sides of the law. With “The Town”, I was rooting against Affleck and his crew. Even more narcissistic is the film’s stance on a believable relationship between kidnapper and victim (the beautiful Rebecca Hall who is wasted here), morphing into some kind of longing romance complete with a bittersweet Julia Roberts-like ending. All around, just a confused, terrible mess.

Spring Fever

“Sushou River”. “Purple Butterfly”. “Summer Palace”. Three straight up masterpieces from Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye. While “Spring Fever” doesn’t quite reach that status, it’s still a terrifically moving revolving door of romance, both straight and gay. Hired to spy on a woman’s cheating husband, a photographer (Wei Wu) becomes involved in the relationship as well. Consistent with his other films, it takes a while to smooth into the flow of Le’s crash cutting and cavalcade of men and women, but once one gets their bearings, “Spring Fever” continually energizes and excites. Banned from filmmaking due to his smuggling of “Summer Palace” into the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago, “Spring Fever‘s” jittery, dash-and-go cinematography perfectly syncs up with the unfettered sways of emotion between his characters. And the final third of the film, when Le jettisons any real narrative thrust and focuses his camera on the lackadaisical meanderings of his three central characters as they dance, take a boat ride and wait for the inevitable, really soars.

The Social Network

I guess “The Social Network” is this year’s “The Hurt Locker” for me. Solidly made, sharply edited, well acted, but it just never really takes off. There are moments of brilliance- the score by Trent Reznor, the role of Andrew Garfield whose character actually has an arch and feeling behind the icy facade of zeitgeist that burden the others- yet these are few and far between and the film lags quite a bit in the middle.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone’s rich-and-powerful fairy tale sequel tosses out head-spinning phrases about hedge funds, derivatives and bail outs with an alarming frequency… at times making “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” a perfect companion piece to Alan Pakula’s great but little seen 1981 film “Rollover”. Stone’s direction is crisp and unassuming- a bit of old school mastery in an increasingly amped up world of filmmaking- and one scene that features couple Shia Lebouf and Carey Mulligan walking and talking in a single, slow zoom take is every bit as exciting as the compulsory evil turn by Michael Douglas reprising his role of Gordon Gekko. Still, while the ambitious screenplay tries to peel away the ugly veneer of just exactly how our current economy was bamboozled by inflated loans and invisible money, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a largely dry affair. It also features an unnecessarily cute and tidy ending that doesn’t gel with the heated emotions surfaced between father (Douglas) and daughter (Mulligan in another great performance). I admire “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” more than I like it.


Yes, Ryan Reynolds is trapped in a box for the entirety of “Buried” and its 105 minute run time. Where most directors would look for ways to open up the action, director Rodrigo Cortes has the courage to stay burrowed with his confused protagonist as he makes phone calls and tries to piece together the circumstances that put him there. It’s a strong performance by Reynolds, holding the one man act together as Cortes slowly builds the tension to a finale that feels unbearable. Recently, the Alamo Drafthouse screened this film to six ‘winners’ who watched “Buried” encapsulated in a coffin, and that’s exactly the stifling atmosphere “Buried” achieves outside a coffin as well. It may be looked upon as a gimmick, but “Buried” is a very good film that deserves a reputation as extreme entertainment as well.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Letters From A Dead Man

Apocalypse films have an inherent attitude and tone. But when it comes from Russia, the apocalypse film is especially cerebral. This is certainly the case with Konstantin Lopushanshky's "Letters From A Dead Man", the type of film that seems to have borrowed Tarkovsky's visual scheme and Nabokov's ideas. Filmed in a yellow-tinged sepia tone, "Letters From A Dead Man" is oppressive in every way possible... and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

Released in 1985, "Letters From A Dead Man" gains its title from the lonely voiceover given by the film's main character, a professor forced to live underground with a handful of others in the cellars beneath their city. Death hangs over every corner. Suicides are rampant and the professor has to watch his wife slowly wither away and die. People can go outside, but only in haz mat suits and they're subject to curfew laws. Yet "Letters From A Dead Man" is lightyears away from other post apocalypse films. There's no violence from bands of roving gangs. Lopushanshky's goal is more intelligent, revealing a post-world tied up in confused bearuracracy as the remaining government apparatus is forcing every healthy individual into the main underground living quarters. Only those with "passes" may enter. The professor discovers a make-shift orphanage with seven unhealthy children, and "Letters From A Dead Man" quietly shifts from pessimistic survival mode to obliquely moving in the final moments.

Owing a huge debt to Tarkovsky's "Stalker", Lopushanshky still manages to create a unique universe. Ideas about the place of literature and religion are the main topics of conversation. And the slow monologue that details the accidental destruction of the world is both chilling in its reality and depressing that it could happen so easily. "Letters From A Dead Man" is not an easy sit, but if one is looking for a varied alternative to other apocalypse films, this is it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Produced and Abandoned Part 7

Ten more titles deserving of a Region 1 DVD release:

1. Obsession (1976)- Brian DePalma's modern reworking of "Vertigo" is a lush, overtly melodramatic homage that often gets overlooked among his films. There is an Australian release of this film, yet its barely shown on TV and the rumored Criterion release is still forthcoming.
2. The Touch (1971)- Ingmar Bergman's very hard to find early 70's film about an American archaeologist (Elliot Gould) entering an affair with a housewife (Bergman muse Bibi Anderson). Ironically, there are several Gould films from the 70's that are hard to find- including "Move" and "Getting Straight"- but what makes this title even more curious is the filmmaking pedigree of Swedish master Bergman. It's one of the few not available.
3. Savage Is Loose (1974)- The second directorial outing from actor George C. Scott, this described chamber drama about a family stuck on a remote island, sounds intriguing. VHS copies go for big bucks.
4. The Nickel Ride (1974)- Written about here, this small scaled, moody film deserves its resurrection. I think it'll find a huge audience.
5. Hell Night (1981)- Linda Blair slasher flick about four teens spending the night with something wicked this way comes. Anchor Bay released a copy of this film (from a bad VHS print apparently) in the early 00's, but its been OOP since.
6. Le Garcu (1995)-French filmmaker Maurice Pialet has been vastly under-represented on DVD. His 1991 film "Van Gogh" is a masterpiece. One of his earlier efforts, "L' Enfance Nue", was just released on DVD two weeks ago so maybe there's hope yet. "Le Garcu", his last film, was regarded by critic Andrew Sarris as one of the very best films of that year.
7. All the Marbles (1981)- Yep, this Robert Aldrich film sounds just crazy enough that I need to see it. Peter Falk managing a female wrestling team. I don't know how good this will be, but if anyone's seen it, please let me know.
8. Sitting Target (1972)- Tarantino is a huge fan of this one, showing it one of the Aint It Cool News Butt-numb-a-thons a few years back, and everything I've read about it describes it as an unrepentantly violent revenge flick. Oliver Reed- and by the way, if you wanna see a bevy of unreleased titles, check out this actor's IMDB page- and Ian Mc Shane bust out of prison to seek revenge on Reed's unfaithful wife. Full of stock British actors, and never released on DVD.
9. The Reflecting Skin (1990)- Director Philip Ridley, one of the few cinematic descendants of David Lynch who doesn't seem to be trying too hard, has a new film which dropped at Toronto this year. "The Reflecting Skin" was one of the first films I can remember seeing on IFC back in the late 90's, and its all but disappeared nowadays. Slow moving at times, it is an atmospheric and weirdly moving coming of age film about a young boy who fears vampires and his own domestic life. Well worth a life on DVD, especially with Ridley back in the director's chair.
10. Trouble Every Day (2001)- Speaking of vampires, Claire Denis' utterly unique take on the horror genre is a startling shock to the system. Vincent Gallo is a scientist who becomes obsessed with some type of blood mutation program and Beatrice Dalle is a mysterious woman who becomes involved with Gallo. Their relationship (literally) consumes each other. The final fifteen minutes of this film are beyond belief, and if you've seen the various stills from "Trouble Every day", it morphs into a bloody and repellant affair. Not an easy film to like, but its baffling that it's not available on DVD.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Patient Observations: 3 From Frederick Wiseman

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is a national landmark amidst the landscape of documentary cinema. So why is it so damn hard to see any of his films? Not known for brevity (a majority of his work runs over 3 hours) or easy subjects (public welfare, a domestic abuse center for women) it's still thrilling to finally receive a small sampling of his work.

Wiseman's penchant for examining various American institutions remained intact from the very beginning in 1967 when he filmed "Titicut Follies" in a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane. It's one of the more transcendent cinema moments where art actually explores reality and changes something. After the buzz from this film and its black and white images of standards instead the facility, "Titicut Follies" was banned but not before it cast a questionable eye on the politics of the state's treatment of its prisoners. Still, one has to wonder who failed to check the negatives before allowing Wiseman and his crew to exit the property. Shown in unflinchingly clinical images are the force feeding of one inmate, hordes of men standing around naked or in feces filled cells, and one seemingly lucid man pleading his case before a board of doctors who seem more interested in keeping their cigarettes lit than actually listening to some of his ideas on incarceration. Granted, these are still "criminally insane" men who committed violent acts, but the idea of such squalid conditions and primitive lack of psychological treatment make one wonder about the living conditions of "normal" inmates who committed the same crimes. These are the types of ideas that vault through one's mind while watching a Wiseman documentary. He allows the images to do the talking, without narration or contextual supposition. Michael Moore, take note.

"Model", Wiseman's 1980 film about the vagaries of the modeling industry in New York, sounded like the most uninspiring entry of the three titles here, yet I came away with a somewhat profound affection for this facade of beauty. Never boring and ultimately propelled through fashion shoots and television commercial sessions that become more and more abstract (from breezy shoots in an apartment or outdoors to a black and white shadow shoot that's selling.... something), "Model" explores the tireless details of every action. How many times must a director shoot a model's leg before they reach the perfect take? Watch how one actress, charged with the seemingly easy job of running down the steps and looking left, becomes an (edited) 30minute ordeal of subtle adjustments and nth degree facial turns that doesn't wrap for days. I became exhausted just watching it all.

Yet, the real coup of Wiseman's film is celebrating the ones that don't make it. Centered around one modeling agency in New York, Wiseman is allowed into the interview room for several talent scouts who talk to wanna-be models, peruse through their portfolios and find increasingly nice ways to say "you're not pretty enough" or "you just don't have IT". For a film that trades in beauty, Wiseman slyly inserts some ugliness.

Even with the deplorable setting of "Titicut Follies", the toughest to watch was "Hospital". Released in 1971, Wiseman was given access to the emergency rooms and corridors of a hospital in New York during the overnight hours. Glimpses of the horror are there- a man who almost overdoses on drugs and is then put into his own private holding cell where he rants, vomits, rants some more, vomits more.... then accepts that he probably needs to head back home to his family and get some help. But with Wiseman's other works, "Hospital" is a multi-faceted portrait of an institution and the people who, for better or worse, runs things. The doctors and nurses in "Hospital" seem genuinely impacted by their patients and strive for the best in their well being. One scene has a doctor calling the administration of another hospital whose patient they just received, upset and filing a complaint for that previous doctor's failure to recognize certain symptoms before transport. After seemingly receiving no sympathy or understanding from the person on the other end of the line, the doctor hangs up the phone, Wiseman's camera capturing a moment of frailty and despair in the doctor as he rubs his eyebrows. It's a small moment, yes, but one befitting the gracious patience of Wiseman to never lose sight of our emotional bearings within these mammoth institutions. He is documenting people and life after all.