Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's In the Netflix Queue #27

1. Night of the Creeps- 80's cult horror film that has a HUGE following, as evident by the Blu Ray's "very long wait". I've only really heard about this film, and I have no idea what to expect. Director Fred Dekker did go on to direct "The Monster Squad", so I imagine great 80's fun is to be had.
2. Frozen Land- Finnish drama about a single incident that ripples through a town and affects the inhabitants. This 2008 film ranked pretty high on several Film Comment contributors' respective "best of' lists.
3. Family Guy: Something.... Dark- The original "Star Wars" rip-off by Seth McFarland and company was so perfectly hilarious, I look forward to more of the same.
4. White Lightnin'- From the Netflix description: One of the best Burt Reynolds "rednecks and cars" movies, White Lightning serves up some great auto chases through a sweaty, dirt-poor Southern atmosphere. Reynolds is a good ol' boy who runs moonshine and squares off against his nemesis, a sheriff (Ned Beatty) who has as little regard for the law as Burt does. A must-see for 1970s film buffs or action fans." Directed by Joseph Sargent, whose "Colossus; The Forbin Project" was such great cheesy fun, "White Lightnin" sounds like more of the same.
5. Grand Slam- This late 60's Italian heist film starring an eclectic cast including Edward G. Robinson, Klaus Kinksi, Janet Leigh and Robert Hoffman just sounds infectious. On never knows what they may get with Italian knock offs like this, but I'm definitely willing to give it a try.
6. Solo con tu Pareja- Alfonso Cuaron's debut film, it's described as a moral comedy when a young man is falsly identified with a terminal disease and he falls in love with a nurse.
7. Service- Filipino director Brillante Mendoza received some notoriety last year when Roger Ebert critically panned his film "Kinatay". Other critics hailed it. This being my first Kinatay film, I'm open to any merits. I can't say the film's synopsis raises my hopes though: "While the Pineda family matriarch, Nanay Flor (Gina PareƱo), brings suit against her bigamist husband, the rest of her brood struggle with their own demons as they operate a run-down porno theater in the Philippines in director Brillante Mendoza's drama. The goings-on include one son (Coco Martin) dealing with a boil on his butt as another pair of siblings contemplates incest, all amid the seedy sexual shenanigans of the theater's clientele."
8. Homicide- I saw David Mamet's early 90's film on VHS back in the day and was floored (as usual) by his mastery of dialogue and tone. I may move this one up to the top soon. It recently made it's Criterion DVD debut.
9. Blood and Wine- Yes, the 1996 Jack Nicholson slow-burn noir that is another re watch.
10. I Am Cuba- Landmark Cuban film from the 60's whose technical prowess has been mimicked by P.T. Anderson (the long take of a woman getting up, walking into a pool and then following her underwater in "Boogie Nights") and scores of other filmmakers. No reason why I've never seen it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Terrorism and Guilt: Schrader's Patty Hearst

Is it just me or are cinematic representations of terrorist groups a dry, often dull affair? The latest attempt by filmmaker Uli Edel titled "The Baader Meinhof Complex" sprints through a decade of the now infamous German cell with big studio verve, yet it never claims a real soul (or identity) with its nihilistic anti-establishment characters. They bomb and kill people, smoke cigarettes, look cool and spend all day bucking against the 'bourgeois' values they were born with. They don't get any sympathy with me.

Perhaps the most effective way to present the trials and tribulations of a terrorist group is the way writer-director Paul Schrader did with his 1988 film, "Patty Hearst". Eschewing any real emotional involvement with its characters, "Patty Hearst" is a highly stylized and dry exploration of the newspaper heiress' kidnapping and eventual alliance with her kidnappers. As Patty Hearst, Natasha Richardson is very good... and her performance holds the film together in the first half when it could have easily suffocated itself with stilted propagandist ramblings from the kidnappers (namely leader Ving Rhames). Filmed in stark black and white and featuring an eclectic, propulsive score for the first 30 minutes or so, "Patty Hearst" is a visual and audible triumph that surely alienated alot of viewers back in the day. And in the usual Schrader fashion, he places a voice over in Hearst that's part self-flagellation and mostly Catholic guilt. Watch this film back to back with "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the two lead characters could be interchangeable.

The second half of "Patty Hearst" is less adventurous, but still thrilling in the way it presents Hearst's Stockholm Syndrome with the terrorist group and her eventual capture by the authorities. Right up to the end, Schrader portrays Hearst as a manipulated girl-child whose adult oriented outlook has been hardwired to believe something else. It's a fitting (and bitterly nihilistic) finale when Richardson, being talked to by her father off screen, looks at the camera and utters "you know dad..... fuck it." Schrader has a knack for haunting endings, and this one in "Patty Hearst" takes the cake. Hearst is beyond asking for forgiveness, which is a clean break from so many dynamic Schrader protagonists.

Monday, March 22, 2010


The Crazies

Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” strains for any real value, taking an original George Romero premise and updating it into that washed out, flickering light bulb-lit aesthetic that has come into prominence with the Michael Bay updates of 70’s horror classics. All of this to say that “The Crazies” isn’t terrible, it just never delineates itself from the rest of the pack. Every scare is telegraphed with crushing music and I never cared for any of the characters… or at least as much as anyone can really care for people in a horror film.

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski’s quiet thriller is a subtle thing of beauty. As the lead character, Ewan McGregor is yet another cipher for mystery, adding him to a string of protagonists like Jake Gittes and Dean Corso (Depp in “The Ninth gate”) serviced to walk through a series of deeply shattering lies and deception. This time it’s ratcheted up to a political level as McGregor is assigned to write the memoirs of an ex British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) and becomes enveloped in international intrigue. Pregnant with allegory- such as Brosnan leaning against his office window as if the whole world is between his arms- and filled with the precise point of view shots that parcel out hidden meaning, “The Ghost Writer” is a tour de force. It also features what is probably the first use of a GPS machine’s previous destinations function to put some pieces of the puzzle in place. One of the year’s very best.

A Prophet

Jacques Audiard’s epic prison crime film deserves the lauds. Starring Tahar Rahim as Malik, “A Prophet” charts his ascension from lowly prison inmate to eventual drug kingpin with brutal exactitude. Each step in this progression is shown in increments, giving us a fully realized (and at times mystical) journey.

Green Zone

The stomach and head can only take so much of Paul Greengrass’ seemingly now trademark approach to filmmaking, but as he did with the Bourne films, the violent shaky-cam approach yields a much stronger purpose. As a military officer in the early days of the Iraq War, Matt Damon is reliable as the lone voice in the prevailing winds of war. Working from a script by Brian Helgeland, Greengrass obviously loves revisionist history and he spins a compelling fictional tale out of reality and (now) reported knowledge on some of the possibly false pretenses that led us to war in Iraq. And if anything, as Greengrass demonstrated in “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93”, he understands how to stretch a live-wire act across 100 plus minutes, managing to heighten the tension and claustrophobia with each act. Snippets of dialogue and split second images, at first, seem to be lost in a chaotic montage of whirling helicopter background noise and gunfire, but Greengrass’ roving, herky-jerky camera provides just the right amount of context for the viewer to understand the logistics of the action. “Green Zone” is not the ‘rah-rah’ vehicle that most audiences seem to think it is, and that’s a good thing. It’s ideas are smarter and its cavalcade of characters (namely Brendan Gleeson as an imbedded spook who allies himself with Damon) avoid easy party line identification. It’s also one of the strongest modern films to explicitly explain the heated quagmire that would eventually absorb that country.


For a few years now, British director Christopher Smith’s straight to video mini-triumphs have been on my radar. Straying down some very dark avenues of horror with his subterranean monster film “Creep”, he burst onto the scene with atmospheric chops. Office politics got a very tongue in cheek (and gory) once over in “Severance”. His latest film, “Triangle” is a mind-bending thriller that evokes some pretty spacey ideas and it rates as his most mature and entertaining film to date. Without going into detail (since the film‘s most bracing attribute is its element of surprise) a group of friends are shipwrecked and then rescued by a ghost ship where some really strange things begin to happen. Space and time are played with and “Triangle” continually forces the viewer to re-assess everything he/she has just witnessed as the film rolls along. Ambitious and unnerving, “Triangle”, at times, feels like an Alain Resnais film updated with modern tinges of gore. It’s that good. It may not be the most original premise, but Smith’s camera placement and sense of detail within a narrative that shifts and folds in on itself over and over is exciting. See this one.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Top 5 List: Petty Pickpockets

I'm straining here, but it just so happens I watched two films about pickpockets in the last two weeks which inspired this list (and is pretty much the case with any of my Top 5 lists).

1. Sam Fuller's "Pickup On South Street" is pretty much the definitive choice for the down on his luck pickpocket who gets in over his head. Nuclear war secrets, KGB and CIA agents stalking him... all over a little reach into a jacket pocket. Fuller (ever the guy to take a tawdry subject and put a prescient spin on it), strikes the perfect balance between noir and Cold War paranoia. Richard Widmark may best be remembered for pushing an elderly woman down a staircase in her wheelchair, but for me the iconic image is his face as he goes to work on the pedestrians on a bus.

2. Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket" is long overdue for a re-watch, but I'll never forget the impact it had on me as a discovering film addict. Hearing Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese rave about this movie in various film books highly piqued my interest. Watching any Bresson film is like an immediate film course, but "Pickpocket's" economy of images, succinct editing style and dry allegory is a marvel all unto itself. I didn't fall over later Bresson pics, but there's something really special about "Pickpocket".

3. Sparrow- itsamadmadblog fav Johnnie To's film from last year ranks in the middle of his later, more stylized genre pictures. It's a film that observes the day to day activities of a group of pick pockets, first conning each other and then later getting mixed up with an underworld boss whose passion is also stealing things. It's all choreographed in To's head-spinning mixture of tracking shots and fetishistic slow-mo. And there's a love story. And comedy. Basically, everything To is known for wrapped into an entertaining ball. His cast, including Simon Yam, Kelly Lin and Suet Lam, are back for round number 10 or so with director To behind the camera and they make it look so easy.

4. The first mumble core pickpocket movie? I think so. Josh Sadfie's erratic, neurotic little indie "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" is an oddity. Starring Eleonore Hendricks, who also co wrote the film, as a pickpocket who wanders the streets of New York (and is filmed, seemingly, by hidden cameras.... yes it's that micro budget) stealing purses, luggage (which happens to contain kittens in one haul) and eventually gravitating to grand theft auto... even though she's never driven a vehicle in her life. Not completely successful, "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" is an absorbing day in the life of an unrepentant thief who manages to exact charm and intelligence one minute before degrading into obnoxiousness and "yeas" and "umms" every other word the next. I suppose that's the best and worst of this new found thing called mumble core.

5. Not available on DVD but suddenly all over cable movie channels, Bruce Geller's early 70's film stars James Coburn as a master thief teaching two young pickpockets the laws of their trade. Full of 70's funk and style, the film never really takes off, although it does feature a decidedly downbeat ending that fits in nicely with the pessimism of 70's cinema.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Music Alert- The Timeline Post

One of the more exciting bands I've heard in a while... and a local band to boot. I first heard of the Dallas band The Timeline Post 3-4 years ago after a single song on a late night local show, then they disappeared. Before YouTube and the like, very little information was available on them. Now, there's a whole slew of live clips available and they've released a new album. Self-described as "epic waltz rock" (which seems odd at first, yet completely apt for this type of music), The Timeline Post have loads of talent for mixing crushing guitar rhythms, droning instrumental lines and harmonic melodies into a fiery ball of sound. Check them out.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Feeling the Sting

This was one of those weary-inducing weeks, where real life seemed to take over and shove aside any moments of relaxation or joy... which means I didn't see a whole hell of a lot movies. The Netflix pile has been sitting there untouched and a few new Blu Ray discs have gone unopened. I did manage to get out on the golf course with some buddies, though, enjoying the first round of golf in 2 and a half months because the weather was finally above 50 for the first time in ages (this is Texas remember.... we had a brutal winter).

Still, there are moments of brightness. Baseball season is just around the corner and I scored my customary opening day tickets to the Rangers. Pre-season is in full swing and my fantasy league has been started. After a disastrous 9/10 finish last year, I look forward to redeeming myself. Still, it's always a good time with like-minded baseball fiends regardless of the outcome. I learned my lesson last year. Offense wins fantasy baseball, not pitching.

A few other links of note:

The latest LAMB director's chair blogathon is about to hit, focusing on new Hollywood "it" girt Kathryn Bigelow and fellow feminist Jane Campion.

1920's reporter guy strikes again.

And "A Prophet" opened this week, and that's a must see. "The Ghost Writer" is still lingering out there and I can't ignore the strong buzz its received. Hopefully, next week will quiet down.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Regional Review: R.O.T.O.R

If you're like me, this poster for Cullen Blaine's "R.O.T.O.R." is a memorable jog down VHS memory lane. No budget to the max and filmed in and around Dallas and North Texas in the late 80's, "R.O.T.O.R" (which stands for Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research) attempted to gain some additional mileage out of the popularity of Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop"- another film shot in Dallas due to its then futuristic downtown skyline. But "R.O.T.O.R" is no "Robocop". With a cast of no names whose performances border on extreme camp and very little action until the final 30 minutes, "R.O.T.O.R" does belong in a very small sub sect of films that use Dallas as a backdrop. I just wonder why it always has to be of a city fatigued by futuristics thugs, rapists and thieves?

Beginning as Dr Coldyron (Richard Gesswein) is booted from his beloved project of creating a superhuman robotic police officer due to bureaucratic impatience, "R.O.T.O.R" lingers on the concrete jungle of downtown and I-35. As something goes terribly wrong with his project and the officer is unleashed on the Texas population, the film's no-budget becomes increasingly apparent as the film turns to night-time scenes "somewhere off I-20 West", locating itself around unspecific gas stations, farmland and Lake Dallas (which is nowhere near I-20 unfortunately). In terms of visual acuity, "R.O.T.O.R" has none of it. The pleasure from this film, though, lies in its so-bad-its-good dialogue and obvious affinity for cheap theatrics, such as a robot whose neck is a dryer hose and spouts off lines like "I think this is how the Terminator got its start." In the right frame of mind, "R.O.T.O.R" can be terrifically entertaining though.

Joining the very limited ranks of North Texas set films- Shane Carruth's "Primer", Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket", Mike Judge's "Office Space" and the aforementioned "Robobcop" as the most famous- Dallas comes in a distant third behind Texas filmmaking cities. While Austin and Houston contain firm production companies and outfits of filmmakers, Dallas has a spare filmmaking identity. While "R.O.T.O.R" has done little to advance this cause, it's fun to step back in time almost 20 years ago and see even a bad movie glamorizing my fair city.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Hard To Find- Frankenheimer's "The Challenge"

I've long been a fan of director John Frankenheimer, and until very recently, only two of his films have eluded me. The first was 1968's "The Fixer", and the second was this early 80's actioner entitled "The Challenge". Starring Scott Glenn as an American boxer persuaded to travel to Japan carrying a sought after sword, "The Challenge" is a worthy entry into the 80's cinematic fascination with the honorable mysticism surrounding the ancient cultures and practices of Japanese swordsmanship (see also Sydney Pollack's "The Yakuza" and, dare I say it, the "American Ninja" series).

Shockingly violent at times, "The Challenge" fits nicely into Frankenheimer's divided canon. Made long after his "important" contributions to 60's cinema and 70's oddities, "The Challenge" could be regarded as his return to genre. Some film enthusiasts claim Frankenheimer lost his way during this period, but his downright stark and brutal immersions into ordinary genre cinema, I feel, are some of his strongest films. Not only is "The Holcraft Covenant" a solid spy film entry, but the nihilistic attitudes of his next two films, "52 Pick Up" and "Dead Bang", stand apart from their late 80's action cinema siblings. There weren't many grand themes in these films, but they manage to crawl under your skin and linger there longer than, say, "Raw Heat" for sheer 80's brawn. In "The Challenge", Glenn is the outsider caught up in a family squabble over an ancient sword. Continually shifting allegiances, falling in love with the daughter (Donna Kai Benz) of the two feuding uncles, and eventually settling on the life of a trained swordsman, Frankenheimer is obviously had a blast framing his hectic foot chase sequence along the streets of Japan and a final battle in a post-modern architecture high rise.
There are a few recognizable themes in "The Challenge"... the most present being the idea of the traditional butting violently against the modern. The two feuding brothers came from the same world, but they now exist (and rule) in vastly different places. The great Toshiro Mifune plays Toru, head of the calm mountain retreat that eventually teaches the American outsider the ways of the sword. Never leaving his kimono and showing his pupils how to slice a tree down with one swing of the blade, Mifune lends his always quiet gravity to the role. His brother, Hideo, played by Atsuo Nakamura, works and lives in a state of the art high rise whose every inch is covered by surveillance cameras. In one of the scene's most thrilling moments, the clans face off in a bamboo tree forest, one group standing placidly among the trees while the other shows up in sleek black limos, armed to the teeth with machine guns. It's visually rich idea that continues to propagate throughout the film. Secondly, Frankenheimer revisits his fascination with individual punishment, locking Glenn in the ground buried up to his head after an aborted attempt to steal the sword for Atsuo's henchmen. Not since the lengthy and gut-wrenching detox sequence of Gene Hackman in the criminally underrated "French Connection 2" has a lead character suffered such a deprived week. For an 80's 'actioner', it has Frankenheimer's stamp all over it.

The other jarring aspect of "The Challenge" is it's brutally quick violence, none more so than the final stand off that bursts off the screen with chaotic fury and a roving camera that allows for low angle shots to simply observe the action in all its messy glory. Watching a sequence like this reminds me how much I despise the current theology behind editing.... cut every half second and piece it together with no perspective. In "The Challenge", we feel every slash and experience every grunt and groan. It was worth the wait. Next up.... "The Fixer".