Monday, November 29, 2010

Cinema Obscura: Je t'aime, je t'aime

For a filmmaker as concerned about the vagaries of time, memory and regret as Alain Resnais, it's a preconceived notion that he would eventually make a film dealing specifically about time travel. That's the main case with "Je t'aime, je t'aime", a film about a man (Claude Rich) trapped in the limbo of his life exactly one year ago. But this ain't "Back To the Future". Resnais' film is a fractured, studied and oblique effort that requires some patience and a bit of investigation as Resnais jumbles up images, ideas and sounds backwards and forwards. Never one to rely on formal or linear storytelling, "Je t'aime, je t'aime" is one of Resnais' most challenging pieces, and with "Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Muriel" and "Last Year At Marienbad" already under his belt by the time this film was released in 1968, that's saying something.

"Je t'aime, je t'aime" begins with Claude waking up in a hospital after his attempt at suicide. He's approached by a group of scientists and doctors (who feel he is the perfect candidate as a man with nothing to lose) and asked to participate in their project. Claude agrees and he's introduced to their experiment, which involves time travel. The group will send him back in time exactly one year ago, for one minute. As always, something goes wrong and Claude is stuck in the chamber for much longer than that. Resnais aggressively cuts back and forth between mundane images of Claude working, his vacation with his girlfriend as he emerges from scuba diving (in a scene that's replayed at least a dozen times), the squabbles that led up to his suicide and other moments in his life. There's very little explanation, and after awhile the images flood over the viewer as we try and ascertain the timeline and reasoning behind this jig-saw of memories and seemingly benign interactions. One cut can travel years or seconds... and in Resnais world there's often very little difference. This characteristic has been evident in Resnais work for years. In his 1984 film, "Love Unto Death", the film opens with a man having a seizure and his wife crying over him as he lays still. The next scene, the wife is crying downstairs, trying to figure out who to call and what to say. The husband then wanders downstairs, yawns and apologizes for falling asleep. For the remainder of the film, Resnais watches this couple's interaction with their friends as they question life and death. Is the man really dead? Is he simply a projection for the rest of the characters to ponder the fragility of life? There's no overt explanation, and while "Love Unto Death" is certainly one of Resnais' more glacial films, it's a single edit that casts doubt over the other 90 minutes. In "Je t'aime, je t'aime" the edits reel one back and forth between reality and memory with startling immediacy, continually posing ideas and answers before taking it away the next.

I admit, I've long been an admirer of the loopy idea of time travel. And while there have been some interesting cases on the subject, I'm not sure the whole theory actually holds together. Yet the idea of us being able to willfully change something in our past to avoid future harm or humiliation is probably deeply embedded in human nature. "Je t'aime, je t'aime" posits a radically different idea, turning the sci-fi genre on its nouvelle vague ear and draining the excitement out of the possibility. For Claude, being stuck in time feels like bland, tormented hell as he lives out simple moments of his life over and over, with all signs poitning to the fact that Claude will probably still attempt suicide. As a final, tongue-in-cheek joke, the small mouse that was the experiment forebearer to Claude continues to wheel around in his cage.... both animal and man confined to their own fishbowls with little hope of escape.

Friday, November 26, 2010

New Stuff


While I could identify a few CGI shots in Tony Scott’s fast-paced, adrenalized new film “Unstoppable”, a good majority of it looks and feels like old fashioned film making with tension wrought out of simple heroics. Settling in with his muse, Denzel Washington, Scott tones down his hyper-real style that reached its apex in “Man On Fire” and “Domino” (an extreme guilty pleasure if there ever was one) and keeps things a bit more simple, though his roving camera still induces some moments of ‘please-slow-down’ theatrics long after the audience gets the point. In small ways, Scott has the ability to carve out human moments for his often cardboard archetypes- an old CIA spook feeding his cat in “Enemy of the State“…. A hooker writing you’re so cool on a napkin in “True Romance”….the scrambled letters on a refrigerator issuing a warning of supreme guilt in “déjà vu”. It’s easy to get carried away in the film tints and lens flares of his work, but what’s always brought me back to his work are these little moments of gentle interaction. “Unstoppable” carries many of these moments between Washington and co-star Chris Pine as they relentlessly try to slow down an out of control train barreling for Scranton PA. I cared about them. I desperately wanted them to succeed. It’s this attention to character that makes “Unstoppable” special. Oh, and it’s a pretty damn good action film as well. I’ve long been a Tony Scott apologist, but “Unstoppable” is his best film in years.

Client 9

Alex Gibney’s documentary on the sex scandal of New York governor Eliot Spitzer clearly resides on one side of the political fence- the conspiracy theorist idea that Spitzer made one too many Republican enemies and they spent loads of money to usurp his seemingly untouchable image. I usually don’t appreciate a documentary that takes one side… then it becomes propaganda and Gibney is not a filmmaker who reaches to land in the neutral zone. Still, “Client 9” is a very good film that interviews all the main players, including Spitzer himself who fully accepts responsibility and places blame on himself, even if Gibney is reluctant to do so. Tracking the resignation from two parallel stories, the film spends just as much time on the creation and evolution of the escort service business as it does on Spitzer’s campaign to bring justice to Big Money fat cats and fraudulent insurance companies. While its fascinating to watch Spitzer’s history of bucking the system and attacking hedge fund moguls, it’s even more interesting to hear how a New York artist stumbled into the job of booking high class call girls or the consistently empty headed ramblings of the Emperor’s Club co founder Cece. “Client 9” is a fully realized documentary that teaches as well as entertains. One sided or not, that’s the best we can ask for these days in some documentaries.

Morning Glory

Roger Michell is an interesting director, taking standard genre fare and tweaking them into little gems. His latest film, “Morning Glory” is yet another wonderful surprise and one of the best films of the year. Granted, a majority of the film’s success hinges on Rachel McAdams high-strung, perky performance as a TV producer grasping at straws at a basement-run early morning news show, and for me, she won me over. Even more amazing, though, are the supporting performances by Harrison Ford (as a gruff, been-there-done-that anchor who had me groaning at first, then joyously caught up in his role the next minute), John Pankow as McAdams’ suffering assistant, Jeff Goldblum who delivers every single line with precision and even Patrick Wilson as the love interest who steps outside the usual boundaries of the rom-com archetype. “Morning Glory” is witty, warm and very funny- just watch the background in certain scenes and see the weird extras milling around. I love it when a film totally exceeds my expectations like this.

Fair Game

Doug Liman‘s “Fair Game” charts the true story of the ‘outing’ of CIA operative Valerie Plame with Naomi Watts looking beautiful in pants suits and Sean Penn dancing through liberal, Republican bashing hoops. “Fair Game” isn’t a bad film, it just feels lifeless in the way it tracks the bureaucratic plodding that caused Plame to be vilified in the open press due to her husband’s anti-war sentiments that were published. Families are torn apart, operatives are left “open” in the field and the political standoff begins. As someone who followed this story daily when it broke a few years ago, the story feels right yet Liman’s herky-jerky cinematography feels borrowed from his Bourne trilogy with a splash of “Green Zone” and “All the President’s Men” thrown in for good measure.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's In the Netflix Queue #30

1. In Vanda's Room- The artist of note who seemed to blaze out of art house obscurity over the past 3-4 years is Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, and thanks to a 3 disc boxset, some of his work is finally available. This film, made in 2000, runs at 3 hours and is described as a portrait of the slums around Lisbon and its drug addled inhabitants. I've heard so much about Costa, I'm looking forward to judging his work on my own.
2. Tallhotblonde- Barbet Schroeder's documentary about cyberspace and crime sounds intriguing. Along with the recent "Catfish" and Ondi Timoner's highly absorbing cyber doc "We Live In Public", I think we're beginning to see a new wave of films that have embraced the myths and invisible dangers of this ubiquitous thing we call the Internet.
3. Altered States- I've kind of been on a Ken Russell kick lately, finally getting the opportunity to see "The Devils". While I'm not a complete convert to his maniacal sense of narrative and out of control zooms/pans, I'll give this early 80's film a chance.
4. Taxidermia- I get the feeling Gyrogy Palfi's absurdist black comedy will make for a grotesque double feature with the previous Russell film. "This black comedy spanning three generations of men serves as an absurdist journey through the history of Hungary, from World War II through the communist era to the present. In postwar Hungary, a depraved hospital orderly spawns an outrageously obese son, Kalman (Gergely Trócsányi), who in turn goes on to raise his own progeny, a skinny boy (Marc Bischoff) freakishly obsessed with taxidermy."
5. Ossos- Second Pedro Costa film.
6. Veronika Voss- I've seen most of Fassbinder's films, yet this tale about a faded German film star's downfall with drugs and old age slipped by me. Fassbinder is very hit or miss for me. I'm guessing this is just as broad as Frank Perry's "Mommie Dearest", but we'll see. This is also one of those films that's been floating back and forth in my queue for well over 3 years.
7. Town Without Pity- Slowly but surely, some 'lost' Joseph Losey films have been making their way onto DVD, and this is surely one. "An alcoholic, David Graham (Michael Redgrave), finds the strength within himself to attempt to surmount his problems so he can rescue his son from the death penalty. But he's haunted every step of the way by his nemesis, Robert Stanford (Leo McKern)." Also on tap in the next couple weeks is Losey's "The Prowler" and if you haven't seen it, "These Are the Damned" made its way onto a double disc and it's a very disconcerting film about radioactive children.
8. Detective Story- Ok, Takashi Miike really is one of the most prolific filmmakers today. I know people say that about this person or that person alot, but I mean it. Netflix recently added some 15 more titles of his. This guy makes 3-4 films a year. "Detective Story" is described as a murder thriller in which a P.I. and a businessman search for a serial killer who collects the organs of his victims. Yes, I added all 15 titles to my queue and will continue to work my way through his varied (and at times sickening) output.
9. Britannia Hospital- I know next to nothing about this '82 film except its directed by the under appreciated Lindsay Anderson.
10. One From the Heart- Probably the most mainstream film on this list, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and deemed a clolossal failure in the early 80's. I've never seen it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

70's Bonanza: Footprints On the Moon

Luigi Bazzoni's "Footprints On the Moon" (aka "Le Orme") fits in neatly with the gaudy, fever-dream like films of the Italian genre benders of the 70's. Part psychological horror and part science fiction, "Footprints On the Moon" is a unique and rewarding experience that opens itself up to multiple interpretations.

Alice (Florinda Bolkan) is being plagued by dreams of a spaceman being left alone to die on the moon. Cut to Klaus Kinski screaming something about needing a new guinea pig. After she shows up for work as a U.N. interpreter, she's told she has missed the last three days of work. At home, Alice finds a postcard from a hotel on the relaxing island named Garma and goes there in search of her missing time. From there, "Footprints On the Moon" spirals into a puzzling narrative of doppelgangers, little girls who seem to know everything and Vitorio Storaro's eclectic color palette cinematography. Bazzoni seems to be charting out something about the collapse of Alice's mental state, and that's just one interpretation. While the film eludes any easy answers, it does present a whirling atmosphere of suspicion and past trauma that would make anyone a bit paranoid. As Alice, Bolkan is wonderful, portraying a confused and slightly sympathetic woman who may be coming apart at the seem yet still wanders through the maze of impending revelations with an icy facade.

As mentioned above, so many of the 70's Italian films were playing and subverting genre. Westerns morphed into gangster films and giallo films were spinning new and bloody ideas off the black and white horror films of the American studio system. "Footprints On the Moon" excels in this fascination of blending types. It could have easily rode off the rails into a giallo flick like Bazzoni's previous film "The Fifth Cord", but it stays locked in the claustrophobic search for Alice's troubling memory loss and nightmares. If anything, "Footprints On the Moon" is so good because it remains just plain weird at times. And anyone whose had that dream where they're running from someone but seem to get stuck in that slow motion non movement will shudder a bit at the finale.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

DVD Shout Out: I'm Gonna Explode

Gerardo Naranjo's "I'm Gonna Explode" is an apt title.... a film about the turbulent angst that builds in all of us during our teenage years and eventually leaks out in destructive or passive-aggressive ways. For Naranjo's two young lovers, Roman (Juan Pablo Santiago) and Maru (Maria Deschamps), life is almost unbearable and they beat up a security guard, steal a gun, and hide out on the roof of Roman's wealthy father's mansion, playing games with their families below and imagining themselves against the adult world. Things do turn tragic, but Naranjo takes his time getting there, building up an elusive tone that stands as a brash examination of youth, bracketed by the indie music of Bright Eyes and a bit of Georges Delerue which adds a dimension of fatalism to the entire thing.

Naranjo isn't a newcomer to the indie scene. His previous feature "Drama/Mex", which I haven't seen, made some waves in the critical waters. His addition to Azazel Jacobs' wonderful "The GoodTimeskid" included acting, writing and shooting that film. Watching "I'm Gonna Explode", I get the feeling of a major emerging talent, much like I did with Cary Fukunaga and "Sin Nombre". Both are films that gently crest in and out of French new wave influences with modern sensibilities and attitudes about youth. They both look incredible as well.

It's easy to get swept up in the 'screw-you' contempt for anyone adult in "I'm Gonna Explode", but Naranjo molds Maru and Roman as deceptively smarter than that. With both sets of their families worrying in the house beneath them, they play act on the roof, Roman being the more abrupt of the two and Maru along for the ride with her exciting new boyfriend. Maru seems to understand when playtime is over, but its Roman who doesn't want it to end. As Godard said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, and Naranjo holds to that credo in true nouvelle vague fashion.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If I Programmed a Film Festival #2

Day 1

****A Vengeful Man Marathon Part 1:

1. Rolling Thunder (1977)- William Devane as a Vietnam vet kicking ass and taking names after the murder of his family.

2. Dead Man's Shoes (2004)- Shane Meadows' hugely under appreciated revenge flick about a soldier returning home to England and taking revenge on the gang of thugs who hurt his mentally challenged brother. Gritty anomaly timed to some shoe gazing music.

3. Sitting Target (1972)- Hard to find and violent revenge flick with Oliver Reed going after his wife and her lover.

Creep (2004)- ****Subterranean horror triple feature DTV auteur Christopher Smith's eerie horror masterpiece has to be seen to be believed. It goes to some extreme places.

Marebito (2005)- ****Subterranean horror triple feature K horror film about a photographer who finds something not human in the subway (or is it hell) and brings it back to his apartment.

Day 2:

Raw Meat (1972)- ****Subterranean horror film triple feature Rounding out the triple feature is the ultimate underground horror movie. Not for the squeamish.

****A Vengeful Man Marathon Part 2:

1. Hennessey (1975)- Rod Steiger as an Irishman hellbent on revenge after his family is caught up and killed in an IRA squabble on the streets. A bit uneven at times, but it does the genre justice.

2. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (2003)- Another underrated British masterpiece by old schooler Mike Hodges. Clive Owen is aces as the quiet killer on the track of his brother's killers.

3. Point Blank (1967)- After watching the imitators, it's time to see the one that started it all.

The Good, The Bad and the Weird (2009)- Insane and kinetic South Korean action/western/crime/fantasy film that blends so many genres and has such fun that this selection will surely stir up the audience.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Top 5 List: Terror At the Ballpark

Well, the 2010 baseball season is over and my Rangers juts ran out of gas against a very good (and perhaps underrated) Giants team. This is definitely the worst time of year for me. There's just a huge void that arrives at night while channel surfing. No baseball anywhere. In honor of the 2010 season, here's 5 five films that prominently feature the sports ballpark.

5. For Love of the Game- A very good, and largely ignored, Sam Raimi film that spins a love story in flashback as an aging pitcher (Kevin Costner) pitches a perfect game. Psychological terror, to be sure. I don't know what it is about Costner and baseball films, but they just always work magnificently. It's not a perfect film by any stretch of the word, but it's constant inter cutting between the actual game, Costner's thoughts on the past 4-5 years of his life, and the mistakes he made in a relationship with Kelly Preston, all build up to an emotionally exhilarating finale. And it features John C. Reilly as a catcher. Rent it today with "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" and really pine for the 2011 baseball season.

4. The Town- While I found Ben Affleck's film to be a lazy, exhaustive crime effort, it does have the brass to place its final heist in the bowels of historic Fenway Park. The overall impression is doomed a bit by Affleck's incomprehensible editing and directing of the shoot-out, but it still remains an interesting locale for a been-there-done-that trope. Boston overall is the choice du jour lately for crime movies, and "The Town" banks on its most cherished site to end with a bang.

3. Experiment In Terror- Yes, Blake Edwards did much more than comedies and "The Pink Panther", and this obscure little 1963 film is outstanding. Cited as a major influence on David Lynch, "Experiment In Terror" is basically like watching a Lynch film from 1963. From the town name of Twin Peaks to the emergence of a sinister killer in a bathroom that echoes that of Robert Blake's white-faced weirdo at a party in "Lost Highway", "Experiment In Terror" feels like a film way ahead of its time. And the use of San Francisco's Candlestick Park towards the end of the film between killer and victim (a wonderful Lee Remick) uses the crowds of a baseball park efficiently. How many times have you lost someone in a crowd and looked around as the sea of people wash you one direction? Edwards uses this confusion to heighten the tension. A great film.

2. Hickey and Boggs- Actor and star Robert Culp directed this grimy early 70's crime film with great veracity and it shows in the film's setpiece at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Private detectives Culp and Bill Cosby are on the hunt for a girl and a suitcase full of money. So are local Los Angeles hoods and they all culminate in the empty Coliseum stadium the day after a Rams game. It's a brilliantly edited scene that has people spying on other people, intricately cutting between bagman, detectives, snipers and the cautious girl with a suitcase. I had to rewind this scene twice just to marvel in the fluid exposition of silent dialogue cut short by rapid gunfire. Sadly not available on DVD, "Hickey and Boggs" is a terrific edition to the lazy, sunlit noirs of the early 70's L.A. like "The Long Goodbye" and "The Nickel Ride". Watch for it on TV.

1. Black Sunday- Did anyone really doubt Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" would be left off this list? Probably the ultimate paranoid sports movie in the history of film, Bruce Dern is gangbusters as a warped blimp pilot out to kill everyone during the Super Bowl. Intertwining footage of Super Bowl X between the Cowboys and Steelers with fictional footage using thousands of extras, Frankenheimer's "Black Sunday" is a marvelous capstone to the over-the-top disaster films of the 70's.