Thursday, February 25, 2010

70's Bonanza: The Kremlin Letter

I do hold a soft place in my heart for spy movies. While there's always room for the gaudy jet setting Bond adventures with its fantastic toys, ironic dialogue and cheeky performances, the spy movies that really get my heart racing are the more subdued, cerebral efforts. I think specifically of Martin Ritt's wonderful "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" or Sidney Lumet's "The Deadly Affair"- films that have nary a gunshot but overwhelm with paranoia and careful exposition. John Huston's "The Kremlin Letter" falls squarely into this category, upping the ante in nihilism and quick-speak that throws the viewer into the middle of an elaborate operation inside Communist Russia within the first few minutes. Codewords are thrown about casually with little information. A car drives off a cliff and explodes. What, at first, seems like a hodgepodge of spy experts, soon turns into a cryptic series of assignments and double crosses. It's all stirred up masterfully by a director who understands how to get out of his own way and present the story with straight precision.

Starring Patrick O' Neal as a Navy commander thrust into the spy world due to his intelligent ability for memory and information gathering, he's soon charged with gathering a rag-tag bunch of operatives from around the world, including Nigel Greene, George Sanders (in a pretty racy role), Ronald Rabb and Barbara Perkins as the daughter of an aging safecracker whose taught the rules of the trade to his daughter. The target of the mission: Russian baddies Orson Welles and Max Von Sydow. The premise is ordinary, yet "The Kremlin Letter" burrows deep beneath the surface as an excercise in hidden agendas. The operating leader, the great Richard Boone, pops up from time to time to as if he's a circus ringleader cheerfully leading lions to the slaughter. It's really his film. And if nothing else, "The Kremlin Letter" is a trendsetting spy film that weaves an intricate web, only to upend the whole thing in the end by a series of 'reveals' that posits the whole screwed up mission as nothing more than a personal political charge against old buddies.

Released in February of 1970, "The Kremlin Letter" was generally regarded as a flop for director John Huston. He would rebound a couple years later with the equally opaque character study called "Fat City" (another of his films not readily available on DVD, like this one), but "The Kremlin Letter" has recently undergone some critical re-evaluation. It was slated for a DVD release in 2005, then scratched due to a substandard print of the film. In this age of self reflexive cinema, "The Kremlin Letter" would fit in nicely as a re-emerged, articulate spy film whose smoke screen narrative thrust has probably been emulated the world over for decades now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Great Week At the Movies

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” is his ode to Sam Fuller. Or maybe it’s his ode to Hitchcock. Or wait… it’s most certainly his attempt to recreate those fetishistic images of the 50’s and 60’s old haunted house pictures he absorbed as a boy. Whatever one sees as the direct influence on “Shutter Island’s” visual scheme, the fact is it’s a genre picture of the highest order and one that sets the bar unusually high for the year after only 2 months. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel (and wow does Lehane have some suppressed grief issues about children and marriage and murder), Scorsese amps up the proceedings with Lynchian dream sequences that rank as some of the most evocative images of his long career, piercing bits of music that range from classical to Bernard Hermann-like, and a seemingly reclaimed appreciation for the whip pan. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fourth outing with Scorsese, tackles his most impressive role as the Boston cop trapped on the titular island trying to wrap his brain around the disappearance of a psychiatric patient. People will say they see the “twist” coming a mile away… and that’s all fine and dandy. The real hook of the film lies in the very dark paths it takes, revealing a flawed human being on the brink of madness and with Scorsese’s camera carefully tracking the breakdown. Music and image finally merge into a heartbreaking passion play that feels at once removed and very personal for the aging auteur. Scorsese is reaching for something beyond the twist here, and it got me right in the stomach.

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is uber European, and god I love it for that. Set in the German countryside in 1914, Haneke’s latest provocation settles on the quietness before the storm. A series of strange events begin to overtake the village. A wire is set up between two trees which causes the town doctor to take a painful spill off his horse. Children vanish and are then found hanging upside down and whipped. A bird is stabbed with a pair of scissors and left on the owner’s desk. Some of these actions have direct violaters, but many don’t. The casual brutality, at first, manifests itself in the children, eventually spreading to the adults. Filmed in austere black and white and full of long takes that observe simple things such as a closed door (for what feels like an eternity at times), Haneke builds a sinister atmosphere around every frame. It’s only in the end, when the narrator reveals that Germany instigated World War 1 the next day, that Haneke’s genuis premise snaps into place. Like Ingmar Bergman’s “The Sepent’s Egg”, “The White Ribbon” is a film that concentrates on the subconscious malcontent boiling beneath the surface. While Bergman’s film was a less than perfect (yet more explicit) take on the underlying rise of National Socialism, “The White Ribbon” is less pointed and more interesting. The words “Nazi” are never uttured, but its there in the cold, souless faces of the children that in 10-15 years, they’ll be propagating some of the same merciless acts on a global scale.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Haunting Final Few Minutes- Frontier of Dawn

Caution, this post deals in explicit spoilers.

French filmmaker Phillipe Garrel has every right to replay the feelings and emotional complications he surely experienced during France in the 1960's. His well documented affairs with high profile beauties (namely singer and avant garde artist Nico) have been the foundation for several films now, including his latest "Frontier of Dawn". Starring his son, Louis Garrel, the film is a mood piece that languishes in black and white cinematography and dreamy pieces of mind as Louis first falls in love with an actress named Carole (Laura Smet) then another woman (Clementine Poidatz) when that relationship dissolves under jealousy and a stint in an insane asylum for the volatile Carole. Like most 'amour fou' tales, "Frontier of Dawn" deals in sudden shifts of emotion with little back story. There are hints of Carole's troubled past as possible ex-lovers show up on her doorstep at 1am in the morning, or in the way she openly flirts with another man at a dinner party in front of Louis, but the progression from sour love to electro shock therapy seem few and rushed. In most of Garrel's work, he's clearly battling with the bitter loss of loved ones (see his 1991 film "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar" which is a ponderous exploration of relationships), and for the most part of "Frontier of Dawn", Louis Garrel gets to swagger around beautiful women and photograph them as if he's in a Calvin Klein commercial, which is supposed to quantify a tortured existence I suppose.

In essence, it's your usual French love story! But after Carole is released from her stay in a mental hospital, she goes off the deep end, drinks a fifth of vodka and overdoses on pills. Louis moves on with his life, this time with Eve, a dramatically different type of girl than Carole. Brunette, unworldly and motherly, she soon announces she's carrying his baby, in which the spoiled Louis bracingly states that "I can't have a child". Eve breaks into a fit of crying, in which Louis embraces her and apologizes, wherein they move to her country estate house and meet the family. If one looks like Louis Garrel, I guess he can verbally gut punch a woman and get away with it.

If my subtle contempt for "Frontier of Dawn" is shining through, then point taken. With the exception of "Regular Lovers", I've never been that much a fan of Garrel's insipid personal love tales. But in "Frontier of Dawn", it's only after the death of Carole and the seemingly comfortable family harmony that Louis settles into that the film morphs into something interesting. While getting up in the middle of the night, Louis finds himself speaking to the image of Carole in a bathroom mirror. She tells him she still loves him. He listens. It's here, in the final five or six minutes, that Garrel reaches at something striking. Is this simply guilt on Louis' part for abandoning Carole when she needed him the most? Or has Garrel pushed himself past the facile gestures of young love and tapped into something primordial?

Like the best of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Jacques Tournier, "Frontier of Dawn" transforms into a horror story where atmosphere and static camera shots infuse a sense of dread into everything. For the first time, Garrel is punishing his playboy leading man- and ultimately himself- for leading a whimsical, care free existence. Louis just listens to the reflection of Carole, leaning on the sink, all the weight giving out of his body. It's a brave move, made all the more horrifying by what comes next. The image of Carole talks him into joining her, wherein Louis (off screen) jumps out the window. Cut back to the mirror where this image slowly blurs into view:

Make what you will of it, but this ending completely shifted my perception of the entire film. Meta-cinematic to the nines, I have to quietly applaud Garrel for peeling away the brutish exteriors of his psyche and going here, essentially formalizing and visualizing guilt in such a tactile way. We all have moments in our lives that are embarrassing or shameful... moments we wish we could take back... relationships we wished had ended in different ways... or people we hurt. "Frontier of Dawn" confronts these moments in their good times and their bad, and its an apt title for a film that steps up to a precipice and dares to look into the past with unflinching honesty.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Produced and Abandoned #5

Ten more titles deserving of a Region 1 DVD release:

1. Domestic Violence (2006)- I missed the opportunity to see filmmaker Frederick Wiseman live in person last year when he unspooled his little-seen documentary named "The Store" at the '09 AFI Film Festival. Filmed here in Dallas in 1982, the documentary observes a few days within the bustling Neiman Marcus department store during the 1982 Christmas season. By the time I read the press release, the event was sold out. His latest film, "La Danse" came and went after 1 week in late January. Basically, the life span of a Wiseman doc seems to be minimal, which makes things all the more frustrating when one can't even catch up with his ouerve on DVD. I could've picked any title really. "Domestic Violence" just sounds the most fascinating- and I read it's yet another patient observation of an institution that rolls across the screen with life and understanding.
2. Blush (1995)- This Chinese film about the plight of two sisters during a changing Chinese climate left an indelible mark in the mid-90's. Just beginning to grasp foreign cinema, discovering the works of Zhang Yimou and other Fifth Generation filmmakers on obscure VHS copies, I remember thinking that no other film looks as good as those by Chinese filmmakers. I'd love to see how my young impressions of this film hold up today.
3. The Last Run (1971)- I've read comments that this film can be bought cheaply on bootleg DVD's. Directed by Richard Fleischer after John Huston dropped out, the film stars George C. Scott as a wheelman brought out of retirement for 'one last job'. George C. Scott, cinematography by Sven Nykvist, 70's funk... sign me up.
4. Love Streams (1984)- It's a damn shame that John Cassavetes' final film is not available on Region 1 DVD. A bit messy at times, yes, but it's a harrowing swan song for an uncompromising filmmaker who burrows deep beneath the surface with a brother and sister who nervously laugh, drink, fight and sing to avoid the oncoming emotional apocalypse.
5. Black Cat, White Cat (1998)- Emir Kusturica is a true 90's fad. After triumphing at Cannes with "Underground" in 1995, a masterpiece in so many ways, he simply faded into obscurity, reconized now more for his acting roles than stints behind the camera. A comedy in subtle ways, "Black Cat, White Cat" is just as maddening and go-for-broke as "Underground". I feel that Kusturica is long overdue for a retrospective.
6. Ken Park (2002)- I'm not the biggest fan of provocateur Larry Clark, but his 2002 film in a loose trilogy about teen anamolie made the rounds on the festival circuit then promptly disappeared. Was it because of a mentioned blow-job scene? Or teen sex three way? Regardless, my disgust for "Kids" has diminished over the years, and that film's frankness was, without question, a defining moment in 90's indie cinema so I'm curious to see "Ken Park".
7. 8 Million Ways To Die (1985)- Hal Ashby directing. Jeff Bridges as a washed up cop. Rosanna Arquette as his skanky girlfriend. What's not to savor about this film? I can remember the VHS cover.
8. Drive, He Said (1971)- There was talk of this film being released last year, then it was suddenly pulled. Regardless, I'm betting that Jack Nicholson's film is full of late 60's haziness and existentialism.... and I mean that in the best possible way.
9. The Choirboys (1977)- Slowly but surely, some of the adaptations of Joseph Wambaugh's police novels are being released into more commercial venues. Last year, his widely regarded (but eventually middling, at least in my opinion) 1972film "The New Centurions" got its moment in the sun on DVD. From everything I've read and heard, "The Choirboys" is Wambaugh's real achievement, brought to life by Robert Aldrich's stint behind the camera.
10. Still of the Night (1982)- Robert Benton's slow-burn thriller about a psychiatrist (Roy Scheider) who falls for his patient and becomes wrapped up in a murder mystery, feels at times like low rent Brian De Palma, but its still a strong effort from a very under appreciated filmmaker.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hi Defness: The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Sergio Leone's second masterpiece (behind "Once Upon A Time In The West, of course) was a disc I picked up on a whim... partly to test the limitations or advances within the Blu Ray format on a movie that's over 40 years old. After all the recent hullabaloo over William Friedkin's transfer of his early 70's film "The French Connection" to the hi-def format, which acted as a massive warning flare that the tampering of older films transferred to Blu Ray could impart some division lines between aficionados and filmmakers, I was curious to see the results for myself on a film even older than Friedkin's. So it's with great enthusiasm that I proclaim the transfer of Leone's western as a blockbuster effort. Not only has the sound quality been bolstered, but the lavish, cluttered and dry images of Leone's gritty landscapes are crisp and clean representations.

Honestly, I don't know if anything could really ruin the look and feel of "The Good The Bad and The Ugly". I've seen the film a handful of times, twice on the original DVD released in the early 2000's, but mostly through the awful pan and scan version that routinely run on TBS or other cable stations. It always seemed to be the film that I'd catch at 3 'o' clock in the morning while suffering from sickness or insomnia. The bar for Hi-def was set very low.

For all intent purposes, if there's a 60's/70's filmmaker destined to gain more from the advances in DVD production, it would be Leone. As a visualiser who works in the extremes, Blu Ray just makes sense. Whether its the protracted opening in "Once Upon the West" or the lazy introductions of his three principal characters in "The Good The Bad and The Ugly" (which takes up to 40 minutes), Leone's camera alternates between long shot and extreme close-up with the ease of a piano player hitting all the right notes. This hi-def version accentuates the shadows of the long shot and envelops us in the wrinkles and scars and sun-burned flesh tones of the close-up like never before. I know I've used this saying before and it probably loses its effect with each Blu Ray post, but certain scenes in my Blu Ray copy of "The Good The Bad and The Ugly" made my jaw drop. The gravel beneath their feet becomes a second character. The stained walls and decrepit wood that clutters so many of the sets vibrates with personality. Watching this film now is an immersing experience in the best sense. The real mystery now remains: if this is the potential for future films, why would I ever want to watch TBS again?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Man Pushed to the Brink- Twice

No longer does January seem to be the dumping ground for feel good romance movies and insipid comedies (ok, "Dear John" was released this weekend). First there was Peter Jackson's art-house novel porn "The Lovely Bones" (you can sense I hated, hated the thing) and now "Edge of Darkness", a more straight-forward and genuine effort because it definitely knows what it wants to be. While both films push the viewer into some uncomfortably dark places in and outside the mind, "Edge of Darkness" does it better because it avoids any manipulated emotions and grotesque view of life after death.

Certainly a jazzed up and more thud-inducing affair than the BBC miniseries its based on, director Martin Campbell does take a few liberties with the late Troy Kennedy Martin's script, adding some modern touches and eliminating alot of the longueurs as Detective Craven (Bob Peck) pines for his murdered daughter. After all, I do expect some tinkering with a story that was originally allowed to live and breathe over 5 hours in its original form, now reduced to just under two. What I didn't expect was the lengths that Campbell would go to in presenting his updated anti-hero (a very good Mel Gibson) as a tragic and unstable loner that truly pushes the film over the edge in its final scenes. The same basic shadow organizations of nuclear weapon skulduggery and governmental intrusion serve as the 'baddies', yet this 2010 version of "Edge of Darkness" coalesces with the times. The violence is bracing and unsparing, the actions are quick and the corruption brims to the surface faster than one can say Enron.

The one disappointment in the latest incarnation lies in the performance of Brendan Gleeson as the side-shifting spook, Jedburgh, portrayed to magnificent dimensions in the original by Joe Don Baker. Gleeson does his best with the limited role (again, 5 hours into 2), but it's the performance of Baker that sells the original miniseries as something closer to the truth. More so than the Bob Peck Craven character, his is the more tragic of the two. Kennedy Martin's original script has Craven lose a daughter, but its the shifting loyalties and anecdotal lines of Jedburgh that results in him losing a lifetime and a country. It's a beautiful arc for a complicated and diverse character, and there's only a hint of that in Campbell's reworking. One gets the sense that in 1985, the intention of the "Edge of Darkness" miniseries was to rally behind some strong political ideals while unwittingly blazing a trail for how marvelous a television miniseries could be. The intentions of this latest "Edge of Darkness" couldn't be farther from that grand purpose. That doesn't make the film any less worthy, though. On it's own, "Edge of Darkness" is a delightfully sordid film that should reward the fans of the original while creating new followers with Gibson's bat shit crazy wandering into full-on revenge mode.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Moments of 2009

In conjunction with my favorite films of the year list, I offer up some moments out of 2009 films that made an indelible impression on me. Older online buddies will recognize this as a recurring event. This list is a collection of film dialogue, gestures, camera movements, moods or looks and ideas within a given scene. This list is inspired by Roger Ebert's list of movie moments as well as the once great (now dead) yearly wrap up in Film Comment. Possible spoilers so beware!

1. In “Nothing But the Truth”, the performance of Vera Farmiga and the cold threat she administers with a smile when she meets Kate Beckinsale outside her daughter’s school.
2. A dolphin breaking through the roped off net and swimming madly, finally sinking under a trail of blood. “The Cove”
3. The final ten minutes of Andrejz Wadja’s “Katya” where we finally get to see what happened in the forest in all its cold savagery.
4. “She’s the new temp.” She’s a tramp?!” “Extract” and a mix up of words.
5. The story of the 100th monkey in “Collapse”
6. The long tracking shot that enters the Destroyer in Cary Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre”. Virtually entering into hell.
7. In a haze of explosive terror, the quick, almost subliminal cuts to a terrifying face in “House of the Devil”… effectively mimicking Friedkin while carving out its own place in low-fi contemporary horror.
8. In a fill full of high-wire performances, the way Julia (Tilda Swinton) mumbles away an excuse not to be involved with a kidnapping proposed by a new neighbor. “Julia”
9. A pair of hands and bodies meet in a semi darkened room…. The breathless and perfectly rendered final scene in Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland”.
10. “William, it’s me” and the shell shocked look of a soldier who doesn’t even register his wife’s face as he returns home in “Edge of Love”
11. The final shot that holds on the face of Marion Cotillard for what feels like an eternity, and the single tear that falls down her cheek in Michael Mann’s masterpiece “Public Enemies”.
12. “C’mon… it’ll be easy peezy lemon squeezie.” :No, it won’t. It’ll be difficult difficult lemon difficult”. “In the Loop”.
13. As two cops interrogate her in her apartment, the series of yes and no answers given by Lorna (Arta Dobrishi) and the range of emotions, from defensive to eventually heartbroken, that streaks across her face. “Lorna’s Silence”
14. In “Summer Hours”, the long tracking shot through a house of teens party-goers, emerging into the garden and a girl facing up to her enormous family history.
15. The “I failed John Keats” scene from Paul Schneider in “Bright Star”…. a performance that feels somewhat off-center the entire film, yet ends up being one of the most spectacular roles of the year.
16. The Will Ferrell cameo scene as a falling skydiver in “The Goods” and the way he screams “oh… don packed the wrong bag!” This type of thing usually fails miserably, but it works to side splitting perfection here.
17. “It’s called Dionysus. And they act like it.” “Humpday”
18. A couple (Adrein Brody and Rachel Weisz) walk behind a row of pillars and emerge holding hands in Rian Johnson’s candy colored heist film “The Brothers Bloom”….. a sweet and evocative example of innocent, budding love.
19. The shoot out at Little Bohemia. “Public Enemies”
20. Building to the torturous payoff that we all know is coming, the long black screen pause before we see the footage from the four hidden cameras placed strategically around the cove… and the sounds begin. I had to look away…. And I hardly ever do that in a movie theater. “The Cove”
21. The slow zoom into the face of a young boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) and his glacial response of “ok”. “The Road”
22. In one of the year’s best female performances, Emily Blunt going ‘tressling‘, as sparks fly above her head and her laughter turns into sadness…. If only we could all scream away our sadness without being noticed. “Sunshine Cleaning”
23. Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) falling to her knees, losing her breath after receiving word that Keats has died in “Bright Star”.
24. A man (Bard Owe) standing at the edge of a ski lift at night with a satisfied smile after seeing the image of his mother in “O Horten”.
25. The color home movie footage that abruptly breaks up the previous monochrome black and white as three kids enjoy themselves in Paris. Whether its real or imagined is beside the point. “Somers Town”
26. In a film full of haunting images, the final shot in “Sin Nombre” as Sayra (Paulina Gaitina) talks on the phone, a ray of sunlight breaking through the frame behind her.
27. Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective” and the agonizing long take in which a young police officer tries to explain his reasoning with his commander, only to be beaten down and bested by his superior’s totalitarian understanding of the language and dictionary.
28. The quiet gravity gravity given to a man on a street corner as he puts his head down after its mentioned he used to play baseball in the States… a dream once held that now evokes quiet despair. “Sugar” is a film that’s attentive to these glorious little details.
29. The way Wincoat (Stephen Lang) lights a cigarette and turns away from the media circus on the street in “Public Enemies”.
30. The absolutely hungry stare on Garrett Dillahunt’s face as he looks a young boy over. And the flicks of his tongue in “The Road”
31. As a door slides open, the way Glenn Kenny spurts out “what the fuck is up?” to Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience”
32. “Did I get any in my mouth? Did I get any in my mouth?” probably the most absurdly funny and grisly scene in the catalog of Sam Raimi. “Drag Me To Hell”
33. The long tracking shot as a man (Nichols Cage) runs into the fresh destruction of a plane crash and a man on fire runs past him. “Knowing”
34. The slow emergence of Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) timed to the Stones’ “Tops”- not as carnal as Phoebe Cates slow dip in the pool, but pretty damn close. “Adventureland”
35. “Inglorious Basterds”- the loud, pulsating drone of music as Colonel Landa (Christophe Waltz) appears behind Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) in a fancy restaurant.
36. The emergence of a shadowy figure down a long alley. “Two Lovers”
37. The near perfect visual representation of paranoia- a black figure stands deathly still in a snow covered field, watching for something in Richard Kelly’s maligned and under appreciated “The Box”.
38. The Guggenheim shoot out. Probably the most well staged scene in Tom Tykwer‘s “The International”.
39. The static home video camera shot of a school hallway, then the bodies of two girls staggering into the frame and collapsing. “Afterschool”
40. Rose (Amy Adams) offering to sit with an elderly woman on the porch in “Sunshine Cleaning”
41. And keeping with the death theme, the eyes of a family slowly changing from spite to reverential gratitude as a man (Tsutomu Yamazaki) transforms their recently deceased into something quite beautiful in “Departures”
42. The imprint of a hand on a dirty car window. A possible foreboding premonition of things to come. “The Headless Woman”
43. The performance of Colin Farrell in “Crazy Heart”. We expect him to be an asshole of biblical proportions, yet he strides in and out frame with generosity and caring for his old mentor Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges).
44. Those slanted and heavily font ed captions that roll and spray across the screen in “Il Divo” laying out a history of execution and corruption… setting up a punk rock exposition that feels like young Scorsese. Sadly, the rest of the film never comes close again.
45. “ow.. You hit me with a whole corn dog.” The lament of the dweebs in “Adventureland”
46. The long shot as Sasha Grey sits just out of frame in Stephen Soderbergh’s visually resplendent “The Girlfriend Experience” as she breaks up with her boyfriend (Chris Santos). As with her sexual excursions in the movie, even the break up is handled with detached patience…