Sunday, May 30, 2010

70's Bonanza: The Last Run

The plot is simple: an aging criminal getaway driver stumbles out of semi-retirement for one last job and ends up getting more than he bargained for. It's the stuff film noir writers have dreamed up for years. But in Richard Fleischer's "The Last Run", released in 1971 and starring George C. Scott, it feels refreshingly original and brash. A troubled production from the start, "The Last Run" barreled through several directors (including John Huston) before Fleischer came on board. It probably wouldn't have been quite as successful without the star status of Scott... an interestingly low budget choice for an actor spring boarding off his home run performance in the blockbuster "Patton" a year earlier. And it is Scott who gives the film its grizzled pessimism... portraying his character Harry Garmes as a guy who understands the consequences of a lifetime on the fringes. He doesn't wink at the audience and for that, "The Last Run" is a seriously overlooked film that ranks with "The Outfit" and "Prime Cut" as three no-nonsense early 70's examples of the crime picture done amazingly right.

If you didn't know any better, one would imagine "The Last Run" was another hard boiled script by Donald Westlake, but its not. Chock full of brisk exchanges such as:
"I wasn't in for crackin' safes. I don't blow boxes, I blow heads. When I say so, the lights go dark."

Alan Sharp, a great writer in his own accord with titles such as "Night Moves", "The Osterman Weekend", "Rob Roy" and "The Lathe of Heaven", penned the script and infuses the three way dynamic between con, girlfriend and getaway driver with grit and surly intentions.

Beyond the bristling screenplay, "The Last Run" codifies itself as the netherworld walk for a past his prime wheel man. With the exception of a few cops and border patrol guards (plus one unlucky hippie hitchhiker), "The Last Run" is populated by killers, cons, sympathetic girlfriends and whores... all spinning towards a nihilistic conclusion that seems to fall in line with the very bad luck of Harry Garmes' previous nine years. Yet this is an anti-hero of the highest order. Before leaving for the final job, Garmes goes to see a priest and confesses for what he might do... and whether the confessional box is occupied or not is besides the point. His next act of contrition is to leave a load of money with his favorite madame, then visit the grave of his dead 8 year old son. Did I mention how nihilistic "The Last Run" is? In 1971, this may have felt like leading storytelling, but in 2010, we can only see these actions as a rendezvous with the regrettable. And that's exactly what gives "The Last Run" its unique drawing power. There's muscle cars and several well edited chase sequences across its European mountainside settings, but the real motivation behind watching the film is to wonder (and most of the time root) if Garmes will somehow escape the inevitable.

"The Last Run" does get the very occasional television run, but its yet another mysterious curiosity in the binges of where-the-hell-is-it-on-dvd.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Quick Takes

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I don’t belong in the cult camp of Niels Arden Oplev’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”… a Swedish import based on some sort of best-selling trilogy novel (much like “Twilight” I suppose) that already has its fangs in legions of readers. I’m always so disconnected with this type of thing, so I only have the film itself to judge, and it’s a fairly compelling murder mystery that digs into some deep, dark family secrets. With its central narrative concerning the disappearance and possible murder of a beautiful, blond girl 40 years ago, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” treads on the stuff of obsessive murder-mystery-kinsmen such as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”, James Elroy novels or “The Black Dahlia”. Less successful is the ancillary parts of the story that deal with the torturous aspects of the titular character (Noomi Rapace) and just exactly how she comes to help journalist Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) delve into the investigation of a very powerful family. Seeing as how the alternative title for the film is “Millenium 1: Men Who Hate Women”, the lecherous ordeals of the tattooed and pierced tough girl seems a bit more central, yet still off-putting, against the more soundly realized whodunit aspect of the film. All in all, it’s well made and involving, but ultimately a bit trivial.

Robin Hood

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is a prime example of slick commercialism that fails to excite or energize. There’s nothing inherently wrong- the acting is fine… Scott can clearly direct action scenes in his sleep… the story of Robin Hood before he morphed into a pop culture reference of the great defender of the poor is compelling- yet the whole film just ceases to really satisfy. Just when it begins to take off, it sputters and leaves the viewer with an anti-climactic feeling, none more so than a scene towards the end when Scott begins what could be an amazing sweeping shot as a group of horses descends into the final battle, then safely cuts away just as the emotion of the grandeur builds.

Take Out

Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s “Take Out” is a film of quiet beauty, employing a fly-on-the-wall immediacy as it follows the adventures of a Chinese food bike delivery man struggling to come up with the cash to pay off a loan shark. Over the course of one soggy New York afternoon and night, Ming Ding (Charles Jang) solemnly trudges from delivery to delivery while Baker and Tsou slowly ratchet up the tension into something unbearable. With every new door opening and food delivered, there’s a small slice of life revealed or different personality explored. Likewise, the banter and daily process of the small shop where the food is prepared emanates a striking portrait of the immigrant lifestyle. Highly reminiscent of the films by the Dardennes Brothers or Ramin Bahrani, “Take Out” is an uber-indie that succeeds in dutifully presenting the American experience in all its highs and lows, stretching a simple act of daily work into an earth-shattering event.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blogathon Note

One blogathon of note (these things are really slowing down, no?)- run on over to He Shot Cyrus for three days of great reading as various bloggers post links to the entries they feel are their best.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Revisiting the Favs: Sunshine

Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" ranked number 7 on my favs of 2007 list.

It's doubtful that with director Danny Boyle winning the Oscar two years ago that any stock for his previous film, "Sunshine", will find itself on the rise. Pretty much left for dead at the box office and ignored critically, "Sunshine", quite simply, took my breath away the first time I saw it. Ostensibly a science fiction film that veers madly into the territory of slasher flick, this abrupt genre shift was too much for many viewers to handle. I personally found its verve exhilerating. Not only did Boyle manage to nail the science fiction part of the story (the race to repair parts of the ship.... moments of tension as people scatter towards the hatch doors... a genuine sense of camradarie with the astronauts etc) but when the film does morph into something darker and bloodier, it does so with violent purpose.

Starring an eclectic cast typically assembled by Boyle (Cillian Murphy and Rose Byrne), the idea that Earth's sun is fading is straight out of a 1930's comic book. The crew's mission is to launch a nuclear device on the sun to invigorate its energy... or something like that. Based on a script written by another Boyle alum, Alex Garland, "Sunshine's" plot is pretty outrageous, yet the cast sells it. There's the aged doctor (Clifton Collins in a really haunting performance), the botanist (Michelle Yeoh) and the strong military type (Chris Evans) who have to learn to adapt and eventually survive as one disaster after another strikes the ship. And just when one thinks outer space can't get any more strenuous, writer Garland injects a bit of "Nightmare of Elm Street" into the mix, creating a high-wire act that walks the line between cosmically poetic and grindhouse exploitation.

Holding the entire project together is Boyle's stylistic direction, full of disorienting lens flares, moments of suffocating darkness juxtaposed against light, and distorted camera angles that mimics the extremes of the story. Along with JJ Abrams' "Star Trek", its becoming hip to infuse the sci-fi genre with a visually aggressive template.

Boyle has long been the reviver of genre. His two 'zombie' films, "28 Days Later" and "28 Weeks Later" are pitch perfect examples of a tired genre getting a much needed shot to the arm. I suppose it was only a matter of time before his efforts could be applied to the sci-fi genre. Give it a chance.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Track Record

There are three or four recently released cds that are (already) true contenders for best of the year. First there was Thee Silver Mount Zion's "Kollapse Tradixionales", then Broken Social Scene's "Forgiveness Rock Record" that feels like their best work to date... and now The National reach back and serve up a tremendous album of soaring stuff. It's days like this I thrive on music....

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Top 5 List: The Long Tracking Shot

With all apologies to films as diverse as "Children of Men", "Touch of Evil", "The Player", most dynamic Scorsese films and "Atonement", these five films below feature a pretty stunning tracking shot that rank as my five favorites.

5. The Longest Day- Clip unavailable. Zanuck's ambitious war drama, which features a dual director's credit and a laundry list of stars, does fit the mold nicely for early 1960's rah-rah war dramas, but its also uniquely well made. While it may reside as the shortest tracking shot on this list, it's nonetheless a technically stunning example of just how massive in scope and breathtakingly encompassing the cinematic technique can be. Starting as an aerial shot in close-up on a group of American soldiers as they invade a French town, the shot carries on overhead as waves of soldiers flock in from all sides, overtaking a bridge and meeting resistance from German soldiers. The sheer scope of this particular tracking shot, progressively higher and higher, is one of the best moments in the film.

4. Weekend- The best work of Godard post 1966, "Weekend" is an outright masterpiece in an era where his films were becoming more and more programmatic and cryptic. As a visual repose on a collapsing society, it's almost humorous... as his now legendary traffic jam scene reveals. And as a person who has to fight his own downtown Dallas traffic every day, I empathize:

3. Hard Eight-= One of the great joys of the last 15 years was stumbling over a VHS copy of a little movie called "Hard Eight" after watching Siskel and Ebert talk about it. Full of great moments, the one that's stayed with me the longest is its ominous "motel room" scene. Gambling protege John C. Reilly calls mentor Sidney (Philip Baker Hall) to a motel room for help. In a mysterious long take, director P.T. Anderson keeps the camera trained on Hall's entrance to the room, building tension around his befuddled questions and denying us (initially) an explanation as to exactly what has happened in that cheap, darkened room. The problem is "dealt" with, followed by a tense exodus from the scene of the crime. With one sweeping tracking shot, we follow the three characters out of the room, down a flight of steps and into their respective vehicles where the camera ends up in the middle of the street as the cars disappear. A bit superfluous, yes, but not an unnecessary shot as it emphasizes the mounting tension experienced by all in the scene. Of course, an entire list could probably be made of P.T. Anderson's dynamic scenes.

2. Breaking News- I hope by now everyone's aware of this blog's unabashed love for all things Johnny To, and the opening scene from his 2004 film "Breaking News" is just mind blowing:

1. I Am Cuba-

Filmed in 1964 but not released until the mid 90's through a joint effort by filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, "I Am Cuba" is a director's paradise. Much celebrated for its dazzling cinematography, its a film about the various denizens of Cuba before and during the rise of Fidel Castro, made by a Russian director (Mikhail Kalatozov), dubbed in Russian and subtitled in English. Whatever its mixed politics evoke, Kalatozov's visual schematic cannot be denied. Each moment seems to be upped by another moment. It's opening tracking shot, beginning on top of a building with the camera somehow floating down the length of the building's side, wandering around a pool, then following a bikini-clad woman into the pool and underwater has been imitated, but it's the funeral tracking shot that really impresses. How did they do this?? A must see film. Note- the shot begins at about the 1:50 mark.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Unintentional Double Bill: Homicide and Kapo

David Mamet's 1991 film "Homicide" and Gillo Pontecorvo's "Kapo" are separated by nearly 30 years, yet both films represent Jewish faith and guilt in startling ways. Though I'm not Jewish myself, I can appreciate the religion's inherent foundation in symbolism and history, and both films tackle not only the question of one's place in that sprawling system of belief but one's identity when moral conviction is put under tremendous (and violent) stress.

In "Homicide", Joe Mantegna plays a Jewish cop who stumbles across the murder of an elderly Jewish shop keeper in a dilapidated part of New York. Her family, embedded with a very rich and suspicious Jewish organization fighting... something, believes it was more than a murder of opportunity. As Mategna digs into her past, he discovers ties to post war gun running and backroom Neo Nazi propagandists. Yet the real crux of Mamet's film- and it is a Mamet film, full of his razor sharp dialogue and crassly poetic exploration of the curse word- is the dissolving identity of lead cop Mantegna. Years of cop rhetoric and snide racial swipes at every possible race, including his own, have rendered him a mute practitioner of the Jewish religion. In one wince inducing scene, he talks on the phone to his partner (William H. Macy) in an office he thinks is vacant, tossing out every possible Jewish slur because feels the current assignment of investigating the Jewish woman's death is holding him back from stardom in catching a cop killer on the loose. Mamet's camera slowly pulls back to reveal the granddaughter (Mamet regular Rebecca Pidgeon) sitting on a couch in the corner, over hearing every remark. It's not only a pivotal scene in revealing the depths of Mantegna's self-imposed distance from his religion, but the caustic root of the entire film with a red herring title such as "Homicide". Through his investigation and conversations with more of the family, Mamet draws the cop as a prodigal son slowly and violently returned to the fold. Though Mantegna's steep escalation from hardcore cop to religious militant is less than believable at times, "Homicide" is one of his more potent works, largely due to its moral gravity and stunning finale.

If "Homicide" is a modern day attempt to exemplify the guilt experienced within a besieged religious group, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1959 Holocaust drama "Kapo" is a time capsule document of where it came from. Starring Susan Starsburg as Edith, a young Jewish girl led to a concentration camp, she is given solace and a new identity by a generous doctor. She manipulates the ravages of the camp initially by her beauty, becoming the lover of a German officer. She then graduates to a position of "kapo", given charge to keep order over the rest of the camp prisoners. It's only when a group of military POWs enter the camp and initiate the idea of escape that Edith falls in love and dares to reveal her true Jewish identity. "Kapo" isn't near the masterpiece that Pontecorvo would go onto helm several years later with "The Battle of Algiers", but it's a very good film that's been strangely absent on video until now. Watching it immediatedly after "Homicide" gives a three dimensional perspective on both films. In an alternate universe, Edith could easily be the old Jewish shop keeper in "Homicide", staunchly proud and driven to outlaw gun running via immense guilt for ignoring her faith during those young years of her life. We've seen numerous Holocaust tales of survival, and it would be a great disservice to condemn a film (or character) for their lack of aggressiveness. For every Resitance fighter, there were 3 or 4 people who were forced to turn their back on their families and moral values to survive. How would anyone of us react today? In watching "Homicide" and "Kapo", this question is raised to even deeper proportions, both in artistic and stylistic different ways, but powerful nonetheless.