Monday, August 30, 2010

Cinema Obscura: The Brave

Johnny Depp's 1997 directorial debut, "The Brave", premiered at Cannes, was subsequently hissed out of the Competition and then promptly pulled from distribution by its director and star due to a case of artistic pettiness. Never released on any type of home video format, it's exactly this type of hard to find film that energizes a movie fanatic such as myself. This leads to colossal disappointment at times, but thankfully in the case of "The Brave", its not all that bad. In fact, Depp's Native American fairy tale about a man who sells his life to a snuff film produced (a wheelchair bound Marlon Brando) in exchange for $20,000, then proceeds to better the life of his family and friends living on the outskirts of a shanty town next to a landfill, actually reaches a level of poignant storytelling. This is exactly the style of movie that's been bowling over film critics from the likes of the Tavini Brothers or Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful".... an art film that maintains a sense of stagnant magic realism in the face of absurd living conditions. Was it maligned due to Depp's pretty-boy presence and lack of auteur status? Or was his cast of faintly oddball characters too much for serious critics to absorb? Either way, maybe "The Brave" was a bit ahead of its time, especially when a supposedly loopy film such as this recently took home top honors from the fest.

Based on a book by Gregory McDonald (who created the "Fletch" character!), it's been written that Depp changed a majority of the original script to embrace some of the funkiness that plays out in the finished product. Living in the same trash heap of a town is an oil covered worker played by Frederick Forrest who watches over his son, incessantly (and inexplicably) constantly running in a large hamster wheel. Then there's the local pimp (Luis Guzman) who floats through the film as if he's never given up the role that made him famous a year before in "Boogie Nights", and who meets an especially violent end at the hands of Depp. Yet, through all this shagginess, "The Brave" is ultimately a countdown to a man's sacrifice and his attrition towards his family. He builds a huge outdoor playground for the children in the town, complete with big screen TV, patio lights strung around a slide and carnival music piped in from.... somewhere. Sweet and alternately just downright weird, its an image I won't soon forget.

The few minutes shared on screen between mentor Brando and mentee Depp play like a poor man's version of Colonel Kurtz rambling on about life and death, but its a scene that resonates nonetheless, setting up the dark undercurrents that propel Depp to make a dreary decision. For its 2 hour and ten minute running time, "The Brave" glacially builds up to the quiet walk Depp embarks upon at the end of the film, complete with metal door crashing and horrors left unsaid. It's a chilling moment in a film with an underserved legacy.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Revisiting the Faves: La Scorta

Ricky Tognazzi's "La Scorta" ranked as my number 6 film of the year in 1996.

Italian actor turned director Ricky Tognazzi's "La Scorta" is a tangled web of a movie that depicts the tumultuous intricacies of the Italian government through the workmanlike eyes of four bodyguards. Much like Paulo Sorrento's "Il Divo"- or a more likely comparison is the great Francesco Rosi and his cinematic exposes of Italian bureaucracy in magnificent films such as "Hands Over the City" or "Illustrious Corpses"- Tognazzi is interested in titillating the brain instead of jarring with action. Reading a plot description of "La Scorta" would certainly lead one to believe the film is an action packed Italian rip off of Johnnie To's "The Mission" or Scorsese-lite. It's anything but. Yet it's this serious attention to the duplicity of elected officials through hushed conversations and territorial pissing matches that imbues "La Scorta" with an even more serious level of tension. The thought of a car bomb or random motorcycle hit man is more terrifying than machine guns blazing.

The position of an elected official (or judge) is a terminal career in Italy. They require bodyguards (la scorta) and as Mandolesi (Claudio Amendelo) is assigned to judge Michel de Francesco (Carlo Cecchi), he soon adapts to the dangerous job of chauffeuring and skimming the balconies as he accompanies the judge to and from work. As the new guy on the unit with three others, their shared sense of a cliched job soon turns into an intimate affair as the judge uncovers a shadowy deal between local officials and hired thugs who control a portion of the country's water supply. As the judge sets his sights on bringing down the crooked officials, Mandolesi and his crew become friends with the judge, sharing their dinner tables with him and eventually holing up with him in an underground bunker when the investigation turns violent. Each bodyguard is fleshed out with strong characteristics and the unity that forms between them is warm and articulate. Tognazzi frames each day going to and from work as a long overhead shot of the two car parade that forces the viewer to search for danger in the edges of the frame. Not only is this highly cinematic for touristic purposes of the beautiful Italian landscape, but surprisingly old school in a movie world that only understands a car chase (or a car simply going fast) has to be cut every half second.

I can't remember how or where I first heard about "La Scorta" in early '96, but I do remember the experience of sitting in a theater (with only 1 or 2 other people) and having one of those experiences of discovering a hidden treasure. In the same year that P.T. Anderson broke onto the scene with his two dynamite features "Hard Eight" and "Boogie Nights" and with Scorsese the master reigning supreme with "Kundun", Tognazzi's "La Scorta" is in pretty exclusive company.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Recent Thoughts

The Expendables

Sylvester Stallone’s action romp and ode to 80’s excess is a film that certainly has its fan base… and there’s nothing wrong with that. For my taste, though, I couldn‘t get past “The Exependables” genuine sloppiness. Incomprehensible car chases, incomprehensible fight scenes with flaying limbs and exploding guts, and even worse, dialogue scenes that are inexplicably cut mid-sentence with zero chemistry (were Willis, Schwarzenegger and Stallone even in the same building when their trio scene was filmed???) all reveal the very bad director in Stallone…. Which is disappointing because he seemed to have a strong grasp of visual language in his under appreciated “Rocky Balboa”. “The Expendables” will surf by on its star power alone. If one watches this thing with a pitcher a beer in hand, I’m sure the fun is emphasized. Sober is another experience, though.


Johnnie To’s previous few films have leaned towards the western genre, with groups of men slowly sizing each other up in carefully choreographed frames. In “Vengeance”, when the two opposing sides of bad and very-bad guys line up for the last hurrah, To makes everything feel like a battle from the crusades with newspaper sailing through the air, each side rolling towards each other behind bales of paper and one group encamped on a steel scaffold overlooking the carnage. “Vengeance: is nothing new from Hong Kong auteur To, but it still fresh brash and dazzling. French actor Johnny Hallyday (“Man on the Train”, “The Iron Triangle”) returns to his retired life of crime to avenge the death of his daughter’s family. All of To’s regulars (Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, written by Kai-Wai Fae) are back in action and, if its possible, To again finds unusual and energetic ways for guys to get into gun battles. But beyond the sense of “coolness” that permeates most of Johnnie To’s films, there’a also a serious desire to startle…. Take for example the opening scene where a young wife (Sylvie Testud) runs to open the door for her family and a reflection of a killer waiting outside is seen briefly behind her. Naysayers can call To a flamboyant throwback to the halcyon days of John Woo and Ringo Lam, but the fact that he’s still making films that search for something distinct in a generic world of action thrillers (see above) is still quite bold. I can’t wait for what he does next.


Director Emir Kusturica (“Underground”, “”When father Was Away On Business”) has been missed behind the camera as of late, but his solid turn as Russian spy Sergei Gregoriev in Christian Carion’s Cold War drama “Farewell” is an indication that all is well with the eccentric filmmaker. In fact, I’d go so far as to call his performance- a mixture of resolute confidence and heartbreaking humanity- as one of the best of the year and very deserving of international acclaim. His French contact, also played by a talented filmmaker in Guillaume Canet (“Tell No One”), is the narrative cipher for the audience, but its Kusturica’s noble whistleblower that gives “Farewell” its depth. Things bog down a bit whenever the American perspective is brought into view through the somewhat gimmicky performance of Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan, but for the most part, Carion’s film is a very serious and quiet spy thriller that trusts the audience to absorb the plot mechanics. And Carion certainly knows how to build suspense, none more so than in the final 20 minutes, crosscutting between escape and interrogation. Clint Mansell’s evocative score also adds to the film’s tragic overture. “Farewell” isn’t out there in wide release, but its well worth tracking down.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

70's Bonanza: The Last Movie

With "Easy Rider" in 1968, actor and director Dennis Hopper seemingly visualized the entire spirit of the counter culture. With his second film, "The Last Movie" in 1971, he barely wanted to leave the spirit behind. This is a common theme for a majority of the movies released in the early 70's. The swinging ideas of free love and 1960's hippie culture were still invested in every corner of life, and "The Last Movie" feels like an extended holdover from the period. But there's also a sense of progressiveness behind the film.... full of disconcerting jump cuts, tilted angles and stretches that feel like the film is rambling just for rambling's sake. Or maybe I'm reading way too much into Hopper's desire to create a Jodorwosky film. Regardless, while I can't classify "The Last Movie" as a great one, it is an interesting meta-movie that deserves to be seen on a wider scale, especially with the recent passing of Hopper.

Starring as Kansas, a Hollywood stuntman in the midst of a tumultuous shoot in Peru (for director Sam fuller, no less), "The Last Movie" begins with a barrage of western movie tropes, slowly pulling away to a distance to reveal the filmmaking throng behind the movie. The shoot wraps, but Kansas decides to stay behind with his Peruvian girlfriend (Stella Garcia) and becomes embroiled with the natives after they fail to differentiate the difference between movie artificiality and real life. Hopper hangs out in the local dives with his friends, meets up with an eclectic crew of rich Americans (whose purpose or reasons are unclear), goes to orgies with them and fights with the local priest over the villagers disdain for religion and acceptance of making movies with wooden cameras and boom mikes. Through all of this, its hard not to see Hopper and his acting friends boozing their way through most every scene, which adds an even more maddening aspect to the film's numerous plot digressions. There is a hunt for gold in the mountains. There are allusions to American politics and money overtaking the 'simple' way of Peruvian life in the way Kansas' prostitute girlfriend becomes obsessed with owning a fur coat. There are so many ideas bursting at the seams, its chaotic intentions are evident in the way the film's title card is sprayed across the screen nearly 25 minutes in, as if Hopper remembered it later. Add to that several "scene missing" title cards and one gets the idea that "The Last Movie" had every intention of throwing the rule book out the window, creating an atmosphere of experimentation and sophomore hi-jinks that almost becomes endearing. In 1971, one could get away with that. But really, any film that inserts a random moment of Kris Kristofferson sitting on a rock and singing "Me and Bobby McGee" probably doesn't care much for cohesiveness. It's still cool as hell, though.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Unintentional Double Bill: Sword and Sandals Edition

Actors go through phases, and for Mads Mikkelson, he must be going through his Spartacus phase. With two consecutive 'sword and sandals' films under his belt, the now recognizable actor takes this genre into two vastly different worlds. With "Valhalla Rising", he plays a savage warrior in a painterly art-deco 1000 AD world seen through the visually sumptuous eye of director Nicholas Winding Refn. And in Louis Leterrier's "Clash of the Titans", he plays second fiddle (but no less efficiently ruthless) to Persius (Sam Worthington) and his band of warriors as they set out to trump the gods. In cinema (as in life), synchronicity is charming sometimes, and it happened with these two films.

Now, before I get ahead of myself, it should be noted that one of these films is far superior to the other. "Valhalla Rising" is close to something very special... Refn's blisteringly brutal editing combined with framing compositions that seem to be borne out of exactly which way the clouds looks behind the actor rather than anything else are epic in scope. And running at a relatively quick 93 minutes, "Valhalla Rising" covers alot of territory in very spare, meditative style. Either you give in and submit to the film's patient, trancey style or give up. I loved every moment of it. On the other hand, Leterrier's "Clash of the Titans" was a virtual chore to get through. I understand that any film remade from a childhood favorite (and a favorite I watched probably 30 times over the course of 2-3 years as a kid) has the deck stacked against it. In all fairness, the executives at Warner Brothers were probably only counting on fan base favoritism for 15% of the film's success. It's a summer movie, loaded with CGI and featuring an action avatar star (Worthington) fresh off two successful movies. Still, the childlike wonder inherent in the original "Clash of the Titans" has dissipated. There is something eerily beautiful about Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation that CGI simply cannot replace. In the new version, the creatures (especially the witches and Medusa, a character that haunted my dreams for years) appear weightless and quick without any real sense of danger. And that's the problem I've had with CGI for years. No matter how flawless it appears mixed in with the action on-screen, it still feels off to me. Not to mention the real characters in Leterrier's amped up version lack a genuine connection. Scuttled is the relationship between Andromeda and Persius in the original. Why do I really care if he saves everyone in this new version? The owl-so important and inviting in the original- is treated to the usual off-the-cuff post modern joke that dots so many remakes today. And as Persius, Worthington again brings zero gravity to his leading man... there to scowl and pout and fight. If this guy never gets work again, we may all be the better off.

In "Valhalla Rising", nothing is treated as a joke and the locales- fog covered Scottish mountains and grimy, black mud- authenticate a real story. I understand this comes off as yet another lobby for low-budget artistic style over big budget commercialism, but in this case, watch both films and tell me one doesn't agree. As One Eye, Mads Mikkelson is a caged slave warrior who escapes his captors, reluctantly joins up with a band of marauding Christian Vikings and ends up stranded in the New World as religion and faith falls apart around him. Spare imagery, clashing electric guitar drones and violent cuts between quiet and action create a tension within "Valhalla Rising" that's impenetrable to escape. Like his previous film "Bronson", "Valhalla Rising" is a character study of a violent male that tells you very little about the man outside his own self aggrandizing. One Eye is a mute, prone to precognitive visions about his own fate and "Valhalla Rising" keeps this hermetic sense of time and self intact. Bouncing from violent adventure to the next, "Valhalla Rising" has been described by Refn himself as a science fiction film without the science, and its numerous static shots of men talking off-screen in stream-of-conscious thought or One Eye's blood red visions of the future certainly place the film in a very netherworld atmosphere. All in all, this film's rugged savagery and auteur-like imagery put the mascara-clad acting and unimaginative CGI of "Clash of the Titans" to shame.

Friday, August 06, 2010

What's In the Netflix Queue #29

1. Cria Cuervos- Carlos Saura's tale of a young child dealing with the loss of her parents. There's not much Saura available on DVD, and the ones that are ("Tango" and "Carmen") don't play much to my sensibilities. I have heard great things about this film, though.
2. Kingdom of Heaven- I saw Ridley Scott's film in theaters, but it left little impression on me. Since upgrading to Blu Ray last year and hearing the terrific things about this extended director's cut version which seems to flesh out some of the material more, I've decided to give it another try.
3. Nip Tuck Season 6 Part 2- A soap opera of the highest order. I've been hooked since episode one on FX years ago, so why stop now even though the show has gotten more and more preposterous every season.
4. Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies- Early documentary from comedy director Todd Philips (yes, "Road Trip") about the cult status of punk underground singer GG Allin. Can't say I've heard any of their music, but I'm always open to fascinating subjects.
5. Young Torless- "Based on a heart-wrenching novel by writer Robert Musil, this film, directed by Volker Schlondorff and winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, explores what happens when a young man named Thomas Törless (Mathieu Carrière), enrolled at a boarding school in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war, does nothing to save a boy (Marian Seidowsky) from constant torture by his classmates." From the Netflix description.
6. Moon In the Gutter- French director Jean Jacques Beineix's cult classic finally got its DVD release earlier this year. While the only Beineix film I've managed to see has been "Diva", I love this type of exposure to a filmmaker previously hidden away. Three other films by Beineix are in the queue as well.
7. Billy Jack- "Billy Jack" on Blu-ray. Believe it. Friends highly recommend this as ass-kicking 70's greatness.
8. Is Paris Burning?- International war film by French director Rene Clement described as "Jean-Paul Belmondo heads the star-studded cast (which includes Charles Boyer, Kirk Douglas and Alain Delon) in this drama directed by Rene Clement and co-written by, among many others, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal. Although World War II is nearly over, the Germans wage one last effort at destruction in Paris. But the French Resistance won't let them win -- not when Allied victory is so close at hand." Sounds great, but the two star rating on Netflix has me a bit worried?
9. The Messenger- Iraq drama from last Oscar season starring Woody Harrelson that I'm just now catching up with.
10. Robokill Beneath Club Layla- Just look at that title. Do I really need to explain? Ok, it stars director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and is described as the following: When a nightclub opens in Tokyo 45 years after World War II, the clientele have no idea the site once housed a hush-hush military lab. But the secret is about to emerge as a defective generator reactivates half-man, half-machine superwarrior Mikadroid, long thought destroyed by America's firebombing of the city. Next thing you know, disco patrons are turning up dead as the cyborg prowls the cellar in this sci-fi classic starring Yoriko Douguchi.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Kenji Fukasaku's "Virus"

As purveyor of hyper-kinetic yakuza flicks ("The Yakuza Files" series) and the bloody cult favorite "Battle Royale", Japanese director Kenji Fukasaku is probably the least likely candidate to produce such a great (and unknown) disaster flick featuring an international cast. With Chuck Conners as a British submarine captain, Sonny Chiba as a scientist, Glenn Ford as the President, Henry Silva hamming it up as a maniacal military general and Bo Svenson as the sacrificial lamb, not to mention the uncomfortable idea of 7 women having to digest the reality of procreating the entire human race, "Virus" (aka "Day of Resurrection") is two hours and forty minutes of early 80's goodness.... and a disaster film that wipes out the Earth's population twice! Who could ask for a more guilty pleasure?

Cross-cutting around the globe as a biological weapon is accidentally released on mankind, "Virus" spends the first 90 minutes effeciently charting the world's demise and establishing emotional resonance with a few select characters, namely Japanese scientist Masao Kusakari who survives the outbreak due to his position in the South Pole where temperatures keep the virus dormant. Research stations from around the world eventually band up together and begin to chart the recreation of mankind, led by George Kennedy of all people. Fukasaku's comic-book storytelling adds a second level of destruction though. Before his death from the virus, military general Henry Silva armed the doomsday devices... nuclear weapons that could launch after a certain period of time and wipe the remaining survivors off the map for good. As the true good guys, Bo Svenson and Kusakari return to Washington DC to disarm the device, risking infection.

Very little of Fukasaku's style is inherent in "Virus". As the precursor to Japanese filmmakers such as Takashi Miike- work fast and quick- Fukasaku has crafted a genuine Saturday afternoon pleaser with little violence, no bad language and old fashioned characterizations. "Virus" may not be as slick as recent ground zero disaster films, but its no frills aesthetic and peculiar pedigree of name actors pushes it a shoulder above the rest.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Trailers I Love

I've heard virtually nothing about this film, but the trailer seems enticing. A quick bit of research shows the book (didn't even know there was one) has its ardent admirers.