Monday, June 28, 2010

Cinema Obscura: The Fixer

There's no doubt director John Frankenheimer loved to expose the vagaries of pain and suffering. One of the most cringe-inducing sequences of his long career occurred in his sequel to "The French Connection" in 1975, where he spent 15 minutes in a locked room with detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) who 'spazzed' and kicked through a nasty heroin habit withdrawal. Though it wasn't even remotely central to the rest of the story, it provided Doyle with some pent up aggression towards the criminals he pursued, as well as creating a guttural feel to the already grimy police procedural. Imagine that sequence stretched out to over 90 minutes and one gets the sense of persecution and savagery inflicted upon Yakov (Alan Bates) in Frankenheimer's very hard to find 1968 film "The Fixer".

In turn of the century Russia, Alan Bates stars as Yakov, Jewish handyman who gives little regard to his faith, simply trying to earn a living while the Czarist government around him is corralling Jews into ghettos. While walking home one winter night, he rescues a drunk who has fallen into the snow. This man is of high regard in the community and with Yakov's non-Jewish features, he takes him in and offers him a job. It's not long before the jealous workers he supervises concoct a tale of rape and child murder, bringing Yakov's Jewish heritage to light. Yakov serves years in jail, refusing to confess to any crime and becoming the whipping boy for a turnstile of Russian jailers and tunnel-visioned lawyers (the main persecutor being a young Ian Holm). Reminiscent of Joan of Ark (without the burning at the stake part), Frankenheimer elicits a suffocating atmosphere as the walls slowly close in on Yakov over the years and he turns into a beaten, demented and martyred figure of Jewish hope. It's to the credit of lead actor Bates that the film doesn't devolve into something unwatchable and punishing. It is both those things, yet Bates enriches the character with glimmers of humanity and a wry sense of humor that pushes the viewer to hope for the best. In addition, some of the film's best moments come between Bates and appointed defense lawyer Bibikov, played to perfection by Dirk Bogarde. The men discuss philosophy, innocence and the various facets of religious identity. Based on a script by Dalton Trumbo, the allusions to his blacklisted life are streaked throughout the dialogue without becoming overpowering and Frankenheimer does a thorough job of opening up the sometimes stage-bound film in visually exciting ways, such as the moment when Yakov envisions the walls of his cell closing around him.

Lost on home video release and rarely shown on television, "The Fixer" was one of the few John Frankenheimer films I'd been unable to see. It's certainly not an easy watch, but an important footnote to a stream of 60's hits that feels tonally out of place with the rest of his challenging and genre-induced work including "The Manchurian Candidate", "The Train", "Seconds" and "Gran Prix", followed by easier tales of small town life and edgy criminal shenanigans such as "The Gypsy Moths" and "I Walk the Line". In all regards, "The Fixer" is a very serious religious and political work that deserved more than the throwaway actor nomination for Alan Bates that year, if for nothing more than its unrelenting gaze on a period of history often overlooked.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Small Town Malaise: The Killer Inside Me

Michael Winterbottom's twisting Texas noir, "The Killer Inside Me", is a chilling and repugnant adaptation of the great Jim Thompson's pulp novel, sending waves into the pop culture universe for its unflinching violence towards two pretty starlets Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson) and not really giving a damn about it. I use words like repugnant above in the best sense. This is a great film for the way it buries so many emotions, none more so than the quiet facade led by Texas sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he deviously sacrifices everything he loves to satisfy the demons within. "The Killer Inside Me" doesn't wink at the audience or service any post-modern demands for the neo-noir genre.... it's a film that simply observes it characters strutting around in the well manicured southern locations, quietly tracking the serial killer sheriff with a voice over that almost lulls one to sleep and making one's skin crawl when the inevitable violence does overtake the narrative. In the varied oeuvre of British director Michael Winterbottom, he upholds his chameleon streak with a stifling portrait of small town Texas life in the 50's as if he's always lived here.

Affleck, as he did in "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford", tackles the central performance like a soft spoken Jekyll and Hyde. If one were to go into "The Killer Inside Me" with no preconceived ideas of the story, Affleck sells his genteel southern sheriff in the opening moments as a true good 'ol boy... someone we could easily see as a hero. But when the shoe drops and Affleck presents Sheriff Ford as a masochistic sex addict and killer, he turns the performance into something altogether tragic, most wince-inducing after the brutal fist beating of local prostitute Joyce (Jessica Alba) in the film's first 30 minutes in an effort to unwind himself from family secrets and a complicated blackmail plot. From there, Winterbottom and screenwriter John Curran slowly spin their tale as the noose tightens around Ford's neck and he attempts to hold together his 'other' life, namely his impending marriage to local girl Amy (Kate Hudson) while a suspecting federal agent (Simon Baker) works to pin the guilt on Affleck.

If the violence shown against women is the central point of contention for so many people, what seems to be missing is the idea that Winterbottom and Curran have done nothing but adapt a story that is 50 years old. In it's updating, there's nothing titillating about the violence, which only strengthens the craftsmanship of the film. Definitely the most radical and consuming of Thompson's novels, "The Killer Inside Me" still feels radical and consuming today, especially in it's apocalyptic ending.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Produced and Abandoned #6

Ten more titles that should see the light of day on region 1 DVD:

1. The Brave (1997)- A real oddity. Directed by and starring Johnny Depp, the film says its about a Native American (Depp) whose offered a chance to take part in a snuff film. It was shown briefly at several international film festivals and brutally panned by critics. Depp then pulled it from distribution deals and has refused to release it. I did stumble across a copy the other day, and I'm seriously considering making the purchase. If anyone thinks differently, please let me know.
2. 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974)- John Frankenheimer's pop art gangster film shows up on TV from time to time, and it recently received a showing at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, so maybe someone, somewhere finds enough value in it to give us a proper release. I've only seen the film once... years ago in a shitty pan and scan version on Bravo (or a similar channel) and still loved it.
3. To Live and Die In LA (1987)- A bit of a cheat, but this title has been tantalizingly offered then pulled on Blu Ray, leaving us with a pretty shoddy pan and scan version on DVD.
4. Last Summer (1969)- Read the IMDB board for this film, and there some pretty fervent admirers of Frank Perry's film out there. Lined with a cast of young stars including Barbara Hershey and Bruce Davison, "Last Summer" sounds like an honest coming of age film that nailed the spirit and authenticity of its time. Warner Archive initially announced its release, then declined it due to a bad print.
5. Kings of the Road (1976)- Like many of Wender's early 70's films, I once had my hands on a worn out VHS copy, only to have it be eaten in the machine after 6 or 7 minutes. I've never been able to find it again. Clocking in at 3hours, this is widely considered the high mark for Wenders pre-1990 work, encompassing the best of his themes and adopting a leisurely tone without becoming boring. The search will go on.....
6. Secret Sunshine (2007)- Chang dong-lee's 2007 film garnered quite the buzz on the festival circuit a few years ago, opened quietly in select metro markets (not Dallas) and has since retired from the grid. Lee has already made another film that captured good buzz at this year's Cannes fest (titled "Poetry") but "Secret Sunshine" is curiously MIA.
7. Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003)- Anyone besides me remember this Michael Mann produced TV series? Originally airing on CBS for a few weeks, it eventually was shuttled around in their hectic schedule. When I first got HD in 2005, the show was run regularly on HD NET, and I understand the Sleuth channel (which seems impossible to find on my current provider) aired the show in 2008. Filmed in stark Hi-def, "Robbery Homicide Division" starred Tom Sizemore and Mann regular Barry Henley as Los Angeles cops on the prowl in what was seemingly a hi-def experiment for Mann two years before "Collateral". Still, the brio and ambiguous story lines crossed with Mann's flair for representing an electric city were great.
8. The Amsterdam Kill (1977)- Late 70's bad assery with Robert Mitchum as a disgraced DEA agent trouncing across Europe. Very little is out there about this flick, but it sounds enticing.
9. Away With Words (1999)- Any fan of Asian cinema will recognize the hearty contributions of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and "Away With Words" was his first stint as director. Described as a moody intersection of three people in modern Hong Kong, it sounds highly reminiscient of his work with Wong Kar Wai... a film that emphasizes place and arty visuals over content. That's not always a bad thing.
10. House (1977)- Campy Japanese horror. But don't believe me. Just do some google searches and discover the pure joy people have experienced with this film. I imagine a proper DVD release is on the way.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Revisiting the Favs: The Claim

Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" ranked as my number 5 film of the year in 2001.

With the anticipation of British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's latest cinematic excursion brewing in the air ("The Killer Inside Me"), I went back and visited "The Claim", his intimately epic western from 2001 that stands as his most beautifully realized film to date. Starring Peter Mullan as a land baron who founded the town of Kingdom Come high in the snow-covered Sierra Navadas, "The Claim" follows his intersection with two groups of people who arrive in his town at the same time: a group of railroad surveyors, led by a stellar Wes Bentley, and an ailing woman (Nastassja Kinski) and her daughter (Sarah Polley). There's a history between the two women and Mullan that's explored in oblique flashbacks, fleshing out Mullan's character as an absolute beast of a man, attempting to reconcile the decisions he made in the past while holding out for real world connection in the construction of the railroad. In typical Winterbottom fashion, "The Claim" is a kaleidoscopic character piece that swirls around Michael Nyman's melodic score as the railroad men lounge in the local whorehouse (led by a great Milla Jovovich), fall in love with the whores, and carry out their dangerous mission in one spectacular sequence that shows the brutal result of nitroglycerin taking a dip across a bumpy river.

In its simplest form, "The Claim" is a film of heartfelt connections against a bitter landscape. Not since Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" has the stark delineation of the warm interior been juxtaposed against the brutally white snow covered exterior. Winterbottom and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler illuminate the interior shots with deep hues of gold and green, while action outside is constantly plagued by howling winds, blowing snow and a deep feeling of bone chilling coldness. Likewise, the human drama in "The Claim" is also drawn in opposing factions. Bentley, not a popular figure in town if he decides the railroad should be built away from town, falls in love with Sarah Polley's character... and part of the story lies in her name, Hope. Mullan's history with Nastassja Kinski pit his former lover against current girlfriend, and in the end, Winterbottom's vision is unapologetically bitter and destructive. Young love may proliferate, but for Mullan, a man who sold his soul for riches, ends up as one of the more tragic figures in Winterbottom's oeurve.

I would count Winterbottom as one of my ten favorite directors working today. I'll never forget walking into a screening of "Welcome To Sarajevo" in the mid 90's and emerging stunned. It happened again three years later with "Wonderland", so by the time "The Claim" was released in early 2001, I was a bit more prepared. That the film blew me away as much as it did speaks to the poetic manner in which Winterbottom infused a seemingly standard western with such grace and fragility between its characters. Even the cliched secondary characters, such as the hooker played by Winterbottom regular Shirley Henderson, blazed across the screen with believability. And that final moment (seen in the clip below), as a hoard of greedy men and women rush the bank for riches, is an ironic spin on the overriding theme of the movie... a grand allegory for an America built on complex terms of sacrifice and eventually destroyed by greed and personal gratification.

Friday, June 04, 2010

What's In the Netflix Queue #28

1. The Exiles- Rescued from obscurity thanks to its clips used as part of Thom Anderson's wonderful documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself", Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film details a slice of life in the Bunker Hill section for a family of Native Americans.
2. Lake Tahoe- I really admire the Film Movement label. Not everything I've seen is terrific, but their micro-budget predilections and sometimes challenging subject matter are a cut above other indie production companies. "Lake Tahoe" is described as an odd journey for a youth after a violent car accident.
3. 35 Shots of Rhum- Claire Denis' latest received a lot of buzz last year. Her work is hit or miss with me, but always worth seeking out.
4. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29- Documentary about a 1968 football game between... well Harvard and Yale. I love odd little sports commentaries like this.
5. The Big Sleep- 70's remake of the classic Humphrey Bogart noir starring an equally iconic actor, Robert Mitchum, and helmed by authentic 70's workmanlike director Michael Winner. I'm sure I've caught this on cable before, but it's due for another view.
6. Silent Movie- One of the only Mel Brooks comedies I've yet to see.
7. Coup de Grace- Netflix descrption: "A young Russian woman (Magarethe von Trotta) becomes involved with a sexually repressed Prussian soldier. When the soldier refuses her, she spirals into a psychosexual depression and begins sleeping with numerous men while championing the cause of Bolshevik revolutionaries in the days immediately following the fall of the Czar." Directed by Volker Schlondorff.
8. Eyes of a Stranger- Cheap sounding thriller.... no other excuse than that. Oh, and it features a young Jennifer Jason Leigh!
9. The Betrayal- A slew of documentaries on the horizon, for some reason, but this Oscar nominated film by cinematographer Ellen Kuras charts the nasty business of war in Veitnam.
10. Underworld USA- A second viewing of the great Sam Fuller crime thriller recently released on DVD.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Dennis Hopper and the Texas Connection

The passing of Dennis Hopper over the weekend brought out alot of RIP pieces... and rightly so. Hopper was a maverick of his generation, a laid back provocateur and diverse actor who (mostly) infused every role with something fierce. Even in some of his very bad direct to video releases, he maintained an edge that is always watchable.

One of the more illuminating pieces on his lifetime was this article in the Dallas Observer, detailing the decades long pissing match between Hopper and Dallas wild child native writer Terry Southern over some copyright issues with the breakthrough late 60's film "Easy Rider". Along the way, the article links out to some rare Dallas photos when Hopper visited in the early 70's for an appearance to the USA Film Festival and details some out of control actions by Hopper during his time here. If one is looking for accolades, look elsewhere. What this excellent article does give is a wide-eyed view of a man kinda lost in the haze of the 70's and unwilling to admit any mistakes after emerging from that haze. As an all encompassing addition to the index of lovingly recreated RIP articles, this one lays out the bad and sometimes ugly. It's only fair that a man's life is remembered in all its aspects.