Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fassbender X 2


Steve McQueen’s oblique character study is a haunting, provocative thing. Michael Fassbender- who for my money along with Jessica Chastain gets the award for hardest working person in showbiz this year- is magnificent as the simmering sex addict whose life of ugly, unfulfilled sex is interrupted by his equally unhappy sister (Carey Mulligan). Directed within an inch of its life with breath-taking opening and closing montages, McQueen’s film doesn’t say much, instead expressing its psychology through spellbinding long takes and subtle lens focus. In short, "Shame" is a harrowing experience. I was largely unimpressed with McQueen's acclaimed debut, "Hunger", but I now sit ready to qualify him as a major new talent.

A Dangerous Method

The beauty of David Cronenberg is his unique ability to stage a film teetering on the brink of perversion, and then slowly pull back the exterior to reveal a conservative morality tale. With "A Dangerous Method", there's sadomasochistic sex, professional jealousy and repressed emotions framed within a James Ivory-tale of famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his obsession with both a father-figure in Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) patient-cum-mistress Sabina (Keira Knightley). "A Dangerous Method" is talky and intellectually challenging... but also a bit sexy in the representation of Sabina's sexual desires that Jung awakes in her. Essentially the story of a destruction of the 'relationship' between everyone Jung calls friends in his life, "A Dangerous Method" is riveting in that dry, almost clinical way of Cronenberg. I wouldn't expect (or want) anything else.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tops In Pops, 2011 Style Part 2 (the absolute best)

5. M83- Hurry Up We're Dreaming

Part synth rock and part flat out good rock, M83 continues to dazzle and impress with each new release, this time sampling out a hearty double album full of great stuff.

4. Explosions In the Sky- Take Care, Take Care

Another example of a veteran group of musicians resisting the urge to tamper with a proven template, 'postrock' band Explosions In the Sky create a moving testament to the power of instrumental rock. Seamlessly weaving in guitars, drums, and horns, their music always builds to a cathartic denouement. "Take Care, Take Care" is all of this and more.

3. The Antlers- Burst Apart

After their debut album, "Hospice" broke through and became one of my very favorite albums of the last 5 years, I wasn't sure if they'd be able to match that album's soul-stirring confessional heights, but their latest does. These guys are here to stay.

2. Yuck- Yuck

Take Sonic Youth and add equal parts Dinosaur Jr and one gets Yuck. But seriously, Yuck is much more talented than those faint comparisons, echoing the very best of 90's indie rock with a modern spin. I look forward to whatever they do next.

1. Radiohead- King of Limbs

Ok, did anyone who regularly reads this blog expect anything less? I heard that "King of Limbs" was their least impressive work in over a decade. I read they've hit the wall creatively and need to push modern rock forward like they did with "OK Computer" and "Kid A". Honestly, why can't we just appreciate "The King of Limbs" for what is is- a groovy, trancy, tight, hard-edged exploration that feels like a genuine exhale of music?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tops In Pops, 2011 Style Part 1

For me, music in 2011 was a schizo year. Finding any real new artist to appreciate seemed to be tougher than ever, with the latest waves of 60's retro, chill wave and hipster-lite never striking a chord with me. Ultimately, what saved the year was the resurgence of old pros dropping solo efforts, effectively saying "I'm still here and know how to make it." Looking over my ten favorites of the year, it's comprised of said veterans whose music I either grew up on or feverishly adopted over the last few years. Maybe I am getting old.

10. J Mascis- Several Shades Of Why

As the perennial voice and writer of lauded 90's indie band Dinosaur Jr, songwriter J Mascis' solo album evokes the yesteryear of his pained songs and slurred guitar. Along with Thurston Moore and his solo release this year, Mascis' album is a thing of beauty.

9. Beirut- Riptide

Beirut is an anomaly in modern music, sounding like a gimmick at first with their influenced sound of Eastern European horns, polka and dance hall flavor. But lead singer and songwriter Zach Condon is the real deal, heartfelt with his inflections and a brilliant songwriter. While "Riptide" isn't quite up to the magnificence of "Flying Club Cup" or previous outings, it's still head and shoulders above everything else out there.

8. Bill Callahan- Apocalypse

I can just get lost in the subtle sound of Bill Callahan... one of the most important songwriters working today. As the lead singer for influential rock band Smog and general Austin icon, Callahan's latest solo album came and went with little fanfare back in the spring, but it deserves more recognition. This is one dark, but ultimately uplifting work.

7. Mogwai- Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Honestly, there's nothing revelatory in the music of Mogwai. You know exactly what you'll get and how their largely instrumental arrangements will build, but damn if they don't continue to impress with every new release. I have a penchant for rousing post-rock (see "Explosions In the Sky or "Do Make Say Think") and Mogwai does it better than most.

6. The Twilight Singers- Dynamite Steps

I just love Greg Dulli and his tormented voice, and The Twilight Singers is yet another project that he lends his talents. Messy, loud and complex, "Dynamite Steps" is probably their best album since the early 00's.

Next up: the top 5

Friday, December 09, 2011

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Unintentional Double Feature: 2 From Kinji Fukasaku

When there’s a prolific filmmaker in the likes of Kinji Fukasaku- 66 titles listed on imdb- one can always expect a few oddities in the mix. While a good majority of his films, produced in the 60’s and 70’s, set the template for ‘yakuza’ films that deal with the complex, multi-layered hierarchy of inherent violence and betrayal, some of his best work resides in the always chic disaster Sci-Fi genre. Three different efforts in three different decades- “The Green Slime” in 1968, “Message From Space” in 1978 and “Virus” in 1980- reveal a creative artist willing to dabble in foreign territory with surprisingly good results. Through each film, which become progressively better with “Virus” being a near masterpiece, Fukasaku tackles the well worn genre with gusto and imagination.

“The Green Slime” is probably best viewed where I first saw it recently- late at night on TCM after a few adult beverages. A relic of the 60’s, definitely, the film follows a group of astronauts as they attempt to land on a meteorite that’s slowly plummeting towards Earth, effectively blowing it up and altering its course. Michael Bay, anyone? What the astronauts find on the meteorite and subsequently bring back to the space station with them is a decidedly nasty alien life force that wrecks havoc. Living first as the eponymous green slime, the life force soon morphs into a monster that drains the ship of its energy and electrocutes anyone in sight. “The Green Slime” is not an especially good film, but it is harmless fun. Beginning as ‘kiddie’ Saturday afternoon serial with models and costumes that seem left over from an Ed Wood production, it soon turns into a latex-suited monster film that seems to exist as Fukasaku’s excuse to blend Godzilla and Hollywood science fiction. Even the theme song- part 60’s acid rock that lingers in one’s head long after the film itself is over- screams of the time period. I don’t regret seeing “The Green Slime”, but there were finer moments for Fukasaku.

One of those finer moments is “Message From Space”, a low-rent “Star Wars” impersonation replete with a narrative that features a kidnapped princess and a rag-tag group of galactic beings charged with the task of saving her and her home planet. The inevitable cheekiness of the late 70's- and Fukasaku's own determination to chop socky filmmaking in general- also dates "Message From Space", but it doesn't belong in that "so bad its good" category. As midnight cult filmmaking goes, it's a serviceable sci-fo romp that goes a long way in creating terrific atmosphere from gaudy sets and some lunatic performances which include a Japanese pimp, two hot dog spaceship pilots and Vic Morrow joining the quest to save the aforementioned princess from a planet of marauding invaders. But redundant as it is, “Message From Space” is wholly entertaining, like a Shaw Brothers rendition of “The Lord of the Rings”. And although technological advances hadn’t quite grown beyond the model and latex suit phase yet, "Message From Space" overcomes its cheapness through a genuine attempt to specify a grand adventure within the confines of a newly burgeoning high concept genre. And, for the record, the above poster from Egypt has nothing to do with the film itself.... but I love its gaudiness.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, November Edition

1. Horrible Bosses (2011), Seth Gordon- I'm really tired of the modern comedy, and this miserable excuse only compounds my feelings. Nasty, snark.... full of non sequiter humor that is the love child of so many Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler movies.

2. J Edgar (2011), Clint Eastwood- Probably Eastwood's most generic film in years. Not only do we learn next to nothing about J. Edgar Hoover that wasn't already present in tabloid fodder, the male-on-male relationship between he and Armie Hammer is as blunt as a sledgehammer. Maybe the RIP Ken Russell could have enlivened the wrestling match.

3. A Very Private Affair (1962), Louis Malle- One of the Malle films I've been searching after for years finally got a humble TCM run. My God Bardot is stunning, but the film was a bit lackluster, too early to register as a nouvelle vague masterpiece and too shallow to exist on the same movie-movie overdose as early 60's Fellini and Godard. Did I mention Bardot looks good?

4. The Burning (1981), Tony Maylam- It features a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter! That's about all I can say for this cheap attempt to cash in on the marginal success of "Friday the 13th".

5. The Robber (2011), Benjamin Heisenberg- A chase film for the cool intellect. A man (Andreas Lust) is released from prison and immediately begins robbing banks again. In his spare time, he runs marathons, becomes involved with an old flame (Franziska Weisz) and stashes his money. The second half of the film is austere and quiet... a characteristic even more remarkable because it deals with a breath taking run/escape from the police. Watch this with "Drive" for a neat double feature. Heisenberg is a major talent to watch.

6. Melancholia (2011), Lars Von Trier- Somewhere around "Manderlay", Von Trier kinda lost me. With "Melancholia", he has pushed me off the cliff. Painfully dull with an exorbitant running time, I searched and listened for the metaphor to this chamber piece about depression and the end of the world for a long time and never found it. Wholly unpleasant to sit through, with no redeemable characters, this may be the first time I rooted for the end of the world.

7. The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne- Another high profile, critical-proof film with a well respected auteur that landed with a big thud. Middlebrow beyond belief, its a film that deals in about as much sadness as Von Trier's punishing effort with a little more lightheartedness. Payne obviously takes heed in having a situation work out a little more messily than in ordinary fiction, yet I could sense every flip of the script in "The Descendants". And that damn cloying soundtrack did nothing to help its cause.

8. Take Shelter (2011), Jeff Nichols- I still can't shake some of this film's energy.... especially the unbearable ten minute scene in a storm shelter towards the end. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain both deserve some kind of award here and Austin director Jeff Nichols delivers another astonishing, slow-burn portrait of nowhere America. See it immediately.

9. Tierra (1996), Julio Medem- Re watched Julio Medem's magical collision of love, pesticide and the wind burned plains in which his film is set. Available on bit torrents out there, I highly recommend discovering this terrific director and his works.

10. Terri (2011), Azazel Jacobs- Amateur actor Jacob Wysocki embodies the overweight, culturally ostracized lead character well, and John C. Reilly is very good as the school principal who takes an active interest in his well being. The tone of the film, as Terri befriends a pretty girl ("Rescue Me's" Olivia Crocicchia) and a troubled peer, wavers in the end.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On JFK and Dallas

A bit late in posting this on that dreaded anniversary here in the Dallas metroplex, but see the link below for Errol Morris' short but stunning documentary about the swirling conspiracy (or lack thereof) of one of the more unusual footnotes to the JFK assassination.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Produced and Abandoned #12

Ten more titles that deserve a region 1 release:

1. Autumn Leaves (1958)- I'm still kicking myself after I missed TCM's airing of this late 50's drama starring Cliff Robertson last month following his death. I'm currently working my way through the films of Robert Aldrich, and this is one of the few I haven't seen. I suppose its good to know the film is in circulation now, but a hands-on DVD release would be so much nicer.
2. Four Nights Of A Dreamer (1971)- Slowly but surely, some Robert Bresson is making its way onto DVD, but there are still momentous gaps (i.e. "The Devil Probably" and a good copy of "L'Argent" now OOP). This, his first film of the 70's, sounds especially appealing as a man and woman get to know each other over the course of four nights before her lover returns. Everything I've read classifies "Four Nights Of A Dreamer" as a hugely influential film.
3. Monsignor (1982)- Ok, first off this isn't a very good film- Christopher Reeves plays a priest who breaks pretty much every vow, getting involved with the black market and defiling a nun (Genevie Bujold). Reeves carries the same half-smirk the entire film, but it is respectably helmed by director Frank Perry and the various mumblings between church and mafia loyalty make for some compelling ideas in a low-rent "Godfather" kind of way. And the scene where Reeves and Bujold lock eyes during a large mass procession is quite stirring. Plus, we always need more Frank Perry on video.
4. Quatermass and the Pit (1967)- One of those films that's been on DVD before, ran OOP, was re-released, and now appears to be available through an import Blu-ray. Whatever the status, this late 60's Hammer horror/sci-fi shouldn't be that difficult to see.
5. The Professor aka Il Cammorista (1986)- Ben Gazzara stars as a man who builds a mafia empire from his prison walls and then continues on once he's released. A real oddity here... the film debut of Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, starring American Gazzara and running 171 minutes! I suppose it was seemingly lost in the shuffle of cheapie 70's and 80's spaghetti action flicks, but it sounds very intriguing.
6. Slither (1973)- Currently on my DVR from its TCM airing last week.... I can't wait to finally see it, plus it always gets kind words from the blogosphere.
7. Malachance (2004)- Debut film from one of the most promising South American directors, Gerardo Naranjo. I'm eagerly awaitng his latest film, Miss Bala" and absolutely love both "Drama/Mex" and "I'm Gonna Explode". His odes to Godard, lovers on the run and eclectic music including Georges Delerue have been lightning bolts of exciting cinema.
8. Lepke (1975)- With Menaham Golan directing, this mid-70's tale of a gangster's rise to power will probably be suspect, but the thought of Tony Curtis starring and my appreciation for the Corman school of mafia tales has me interested.
9. The Midnight Man (1974)- Co directed by Burt Lancaster, how can this synopsis not sound fun: "The Ex-con. The Hippie. The Senator. The Pervert. The Lesbian. The Professor. The Sheriff. The Sadist. One of them is a murderer. All of them make the most fascinating murder mystery in years."
10. Day of the Beast (1996)- From the few Alex de la Iglesia films I've seen, I'm not sure if his zippy, cut-happy efforts are really my cup of tea..... although "The Last Circus" was kinetic and furthered my deep seated fears of clowns. This film, which deals with the possible birth of the devil on Christmas in Madrid, has its cult following.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

70's Bonanza: The Big Fix

Temporally, "The Big Fix" is a mess. Taking its narrative cue from the film noir genre of the 40's and transferring the self-reflexive private detective and his quest to solve a mystery to California in the 1970's is only the beginning. "The Big Fix" is really a film of the 1960's, as its ideas and eventual outcome all have to do with the radical counterculture of that time and its lingering effects on fathers and sons. I did say "The Big Fix" is a "mess", but only in the best sense of the word. Directed by Jeremy Kagan and starring Richard Dreyfuss in an engaging and complex performance that ranks as one of his best, "The Big Fix" begins with Dreyfuss, as P.I. Moses Wine, being hired by an old flame (Susan Anspach) to work for the political campaign of a governor hopeful. Someone is trying to dereail the campaign by associating the candidate to ex-60's liberal terrorist Howard Eppis (F. Murray Abraham in a scene-stealing performance, mimcing the energetic mania of Abby Hoffman). Wine takes on the case and lesiurely floats from suspect to suspect, eventually becoming embroiled in murder, the kidnapping of a hispanic movement leader, and his own ugly child custody issues with ex-wife Bonnie Bedelia. Basically, like the best sun noirs of the 70's (i.e. "The Long Goodbye" and "Night Moves"), "The Big Fix" deals with heavy issues in a very effortless method. At first glance, one wonders when and how this thing is going to work itself out as Wine dances from the personal to the professional with little regard for either. But then, when "The Big Fix" does kick in with narrative force, it becomes a sensational piece of 70's filmmaking full of depth, surprise and unconventional noir storytelling. And just hearing Dreyfuss explain the cast on his right arm (which he actually broke in pre-production) to everyone he meets is priceless.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The New Stuff Addition

Really kicking into the fall movie mode, with so much to see finally.... "Take Shelter", "The Skin I Live In", "J Edgar" and "Melancholia". I love this time of year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” stands as a strong contributor for best directorial debut of the year. Placing youngest Olsen sibling Elizabeth (now all growed up) front and center in such a psychologically penetrating effort could be distracting at first, but within the first five minutes, those fears dissipate and she turns in one of the most affecting performances of the year. Opening with her escape from a backwoods family commune into the home of estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), “Martha Marcy May Marlene” shifts back and forth in time as we understand the levels of psychological damage done to her by Patrick (John Hawkes) and her struggles to adapt to normal life. With little bearing for time or place, Durkin’s slow zoom, trance-like camera never gives the viewer a full understanding of where we are in Martha’s life until each scene progresses, likewise thrusting the viewer into the same splintered state of consciousness. It’s a bold film both compositionally and emotionally and one that’s unafraid to comb the depths of identity and family bonds. In the most angry scene, Martha’s inability to overcome her brainwashed state explodes during a prim and proper lake house party and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” becomes almost unbearable in its tension as the camera sits at a motionless distance while she’s calmed down by sister and brother-in-law. At times, it’s echoes of Ingmar Bergman-like psychological inspection are stirring, especially since the dynamic between sisters remains elusive and complex… and if that sounds like high praise then I urge one to seek out this film. And the final scene is simply terrifying in so many ways.

In Time

More and more, I’ve come to realize that the magnificent promise of director Andrew Niccol’s debut film “Gattaca” (1997) is lightning in a bottle. Since then, Niccol has authored several low-key efforts that grapple with grand ideas , ultimately lost in a dumb-headed series of narrative conceits and vague emotional connectivity. Sadly, “In Time” isn’t a return to form but another example of Niccol’s inability to spin a heady concept within a thrilling narrative. Everything about “In Time” feels like a leftover direct to video cheapie from the year 2000, even down to the minimal police cars that look more like Robocop knock offs than sleek examples of modern inventiveness. The story- which takes place in a futuristic society where humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at 25 and the only true currency is minutes and hours bartered or stolen- also thuds along with zero energy. This is the type of film where everyone stands too close to the hero (Justin Timberlake) with guns, allowing him to overtake them and escape or the variation of using the word “time” in puns stands in for dialogue. And to further prove that Niccol hasn’t quite gotten over the creative spark in “Gattaca”, he apes the lush score of Michael Nyman and uses the oppositional brother overtones of that film to propel “In Time”. A real disappointment.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Contenders For Songs of the Year

Retro pick just because I can't shake the damn song from my head lately.....

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Into the Deep End: Assayas and "Cold Water"

A natural cinematic trademark of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is the idea of life and death in flux. His best films- "Late August, Early September", "Summer Hours" and "Clean"- all begin their emotional journey during or after the death of someone and the ensuing remnants of the living left behind. His 1994 film, "Cold Water" celebrates life for a majority of the picture, following two teenagers in love as they're separated and then re-joined... only to have life rudely interrupt their halcyon time together.

Paris, 1972, a time not unnoticed for its lasting impact since the late 60's and France's youth upheaval. Christine (Virgine Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) are troublemakers, but inseparable. After a brief stint of shoplifting, Christine is captured but Gilles gets away. She is sent to a youth home while Gilles continues his destructive bent by purchasing sticks of dynamite and being kicked out of school. But rather than a Truffaut like coming-of-age story, Assayas delivers a much different and affecting tale of these teens. In one scene, Gilles' father tries to reach him through gentle conversation and level headed realism. "Cold Water" then shifts gears from the paternal bonding to a raucous, furious teen party in the middle of a decrepit mansion where Christine, newly escaped from her detention center, meets up with Gilles and young, impenetrable love rules again.

In typical Assayas fashion, a majority of "Cold Water" is filmed with a nervous handheld look that can barely hold his characters in the frame. At the party, which encompasses over a third of the film's ninety minute running time, the mood is energetic and clearly reminiscent of his own late night escapades. Music from Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Nico and CCR are continually kicked off the record player with a scratch of the needle and Assayas' camera alternates between long takes that casually follows kids as they wander around the premise, take hits off a pipe or become heathens tossing furniture into a huge bonfire. After a while, the film resumes the relationship of Christine and Gilles in two very indelible moments- the first as Christine slowly roams around the house, cutting off bits of her hair with scissors.... and the second a more gentle expression as they dance together and lose themselves in each others embrace. Christine, as performed to perfection by Ledoyen, is a troubled soul and Gilles is her emotional rock, both of these sensibilities exemplified in wordless exchanges that form the core of "Cold Water". Tough times are ahead for these kids after the ebullient energy of a party such as this, but for that one night, their innocent worldview couldn't be more peaceful.

Released in 1994 before Assayas would become an international sensation with "Irma Vep", I'm tempted to call "Cold Water" his best film- though I've yet to find three more of his earlier films. Ledoyen would go on to become a marginal star in the late 90's alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the under appreciated "The Beach" and we're all aware of Assayas' cinematic legacy. "Cold water" is a tender, alive and raw example of a film that deserves a larger audience.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bloody Disgusting Views From Hallowed October

House of the Devil

After just a couple of years, Ti West's low-fi scary old house shocker has become a Halloween favorite around the household. Not only does it toss out some great, funky 70's vibes courtesy of the opening credits, but it's a horror film that understands the logistics of good terror can be found in the quiet spaces and simple camera moves in and around the frame. The first 45 minutes, as a woman accepts a job to house sit and roams around the house, listening to music and orders pizza is only establishing the grounds for the hell that's about to be released. I so look forward to West's next film, "The Innkeepers".

The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle)

Richard Loncraine's mid 70's psychological thriller is more "Repulsion" than "Rosemary's Baby", which its ultimately linked to since Mia Farrow again stars as a woman wrestling with the sad vagaries of motherhood. This time, her daughter has died and her marriage is failing when she moves to London and becomes a cipher for something evil lurking in her house. It does take a while for the film to get rolling and it relies more on atmospheric scares than outright screams, but its worth the watch as an intelligent take on the old ghost story. And it should join "The Changeling" and "Insidious" as films that show a creepy seance!

Exte: Hair Extensions

It should be noted that filmmaker Sion Sono works in the perverted margins of cinema... and I do really enjoy a majority of his films I've been able to see. With "Suicide Club" and the even more adventurous "Noriko's Dinner Table", he took the J-horror wave to abstract places with head-spinning veracity. And his '06 film, "Exte" is probably his way of saying screw you to the horror genre in general. A female ghost holds that ever present grudge against the living and uses a coroner with a hair fetish to spread her evil through the lives of several hair shop employees around Japan. Gory at times and with Sono's themes of child abuse and voyeurism overtaking the central narrative, "Exte Hair Extensions" is a unique and pretty crazy idea of death through rapidly growing hair. I doubt its meant to be taken seriously, yet its hard to shake some of the film's images.

Prince of Darkness

Just look at the run director John carpenter had for a couple of years: "Big Trouble In Little China", "Prince of Darkness" and "They Live". In fact, a good majority of the stars in "Big Trouble in Little China" pop up again in what I feel is Carpenter's most fascinating film, "Prince of Darkness". A group of scientists and grad students meet to study something evil swirling in the bowels of an old church and come face to face with the evil powers of Satan himself. Compositionally, "Prince of Darkness" is near perfect and the scares- especially the demonic sounding voices of an old homeless woman and a murdered scientist propped up by bugs later in the film- send chills down my spine no matter how many times I know they're coming. Just an all around great film that never gets much attention.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Michael Winterbottom Files: Forget About Me

Besides being one of my very favorite filmmakers, British director Michael Winterbottom is a true chameleon.... one of the closest things we have today (along with Steven Soderbergh) of the studio boys back in the 40's and 50's who were able to parlay an extensive list of films together over a number of years, weaving in and out of genre and styles with ruthless efficiency. At the heart of many of Winterbottom's films lies an inherent respect for the serendipitous moments that people discover with others throughout their daily hustle and bustle. "Wonderland", "The Claim", "The Trip", "Summer in Genoa" all bracket a human drama against the wild tonality of a road movie. Winterbottom also loves his rock music, as evident in "24 Hour Party People" and "9 Songs". Both of these tendencies are at the center of his debut 1990 debut film "Forget About Me". Starring Ewen Bremner and Brian Mccardie, "Forget About Me" begins as a road as two soldiers in training take their Christmas leave and travel to Budapest to see their favorite band, Simple Minds, perform. Along the way they pick up a beautiful hippie girl hitchhiker named Czilla (Zsuzsanna Varkonyi) and they lay over in her Hungarian hometown where they're introduced to local culture, the girl's shifting affinities for both boys and Hungarian death metal.

Financed by British television and gaining some exposure on the festival circuit in early 1990, at first glance "Forget About Me" feels like an airy, insubstantial piece of love triangle drama. On a second viewing, the awkward moments between the two soldiers and Czilla and Winterbottom's handheld camera capture uniquely moving flutters of emotion and feeling. In one scene- and one of the first where Czilla turns her attention towards the more mild mannered Broke (Ewen Bremner)- her playful advances come as he's shaving in the mirror. They chase each other around the room for a minute before the tension sets in. In another, Czilla and Broke run away from a party where her rocker ex-boyfriend Attila (Attila Grandpierre) has picked a fight with Bunny (Mccardie) and the two end up in the middle of family dance party at midnight. It's a magical little moment where no words are exchanged and the mood of a vibrant, surreal foreign country sets in perfectly. In description, this type of independent, hippie road movie seems hackneyed to say the least, but in 1990, I'm sure it felt otherworldly and a bit ahead of its time. Bottom line, "Forget About Me" owes more to the loose French nouvelle vague then the sometimes over hyped Alexander Payne 'search films'.

In addition to establishing many themes later revisited by Winterbottom, "Forget About Me" also marks the first time Winterbottom and friend/screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce would work together, later collaborating on such diverse films as "Code 46", "Welcome To Sarajevo" and "Tristram Shandy; A Cock and Bull Story". The script for "Forget About Me" is simple, relying on the elusive, natural beauty of female star Varkonyi and the wild-eyed innocence of Mccardie and Bremner as they experience life for the first time. And the ultimate irony of the film? When the two lads finally do get to attend the Simple Minds concert they've traveled over 400 miles to see (and which is shortly filmed, possible leading to the reason the film has never been released in any home video format), Bremner wanders off into the night unable to cope with the crushing effects of a grown up romance. It all feels a bit biographical, and perhaps Boyce and Winterbottom were these two lads at some point.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

New Movies and All

The Ides of March

The actor Clooney is quickly becoming a cerebral director with this taut political tale that pushes into the foreground the three-card-monty act that enshrines the gamesmanship behind every political campaign. While assuming the role of Governor Mike Morris, a seemingly wholesome figure in a tight Ohio Democratic primary, Clooney is good, but "The Ides of March" has the gusto to create a film not about him, but the various campaign directors and interns that tirelessly work behind the scene. Bottom line, if one goes to see Clooney, than they may be sorely disappointed. In another terrific performance, Ryan Gosling is the real star, bouncing off legendary character actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey Wright as the election becomes embroiled in sexual innuendo, territorial back-stabbing and the leering press. Through it all, Clooney maintains a steadfast classicism that has become his directorial earmark. The most flashy moment- and probably the film's most invigorating moment- is a decisive scene which plays out in silence as the camera slowly pans in towards a car from across the street. Not only does "The Ides of March" hit the right notes cinematically, but the various twists and turns create a compelling drama that stands as one of my very favorite films of the year so far.


Joseph Levine's "50/50" is a fair representation of the Apatow brand- films that confront adult themes with a very childish sense of humor- and then about 30 minutes in it, "50/50" changes into something completely unexpected and overwhelming and smashes that brand to pieces. It's that good of a movie, led by a stunning, genuine performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt who deserves a nomination for his work here. Writer Will Reiser and director Levin ("The Wackness" and "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") know exactly how to frame a story around real emotions, allowing the Seth Rogen style of humor to compliment the touchy prospect of a cancer-ridden comedy while maintaining its austerity to life and survival. There's so much good in "50/50" that I dearly hope its marketing as a raunchy comedy will not dissuade adventurous viewers. Strong supporting performances, especially from Anna Kendrick who has become so good in that uptight, purse-lipped manner of comedy, only heighten the comedy-drama and ground the more romantic elements of the film. With a film so encumbered by the air of death, its a completely life-affirming revelation of a young man's wide open future.


And the accolades just keep on coming here on this blog. Cindy Meehl's documentary on the real life horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman, is a gentle thing of beauty. Picking up with Buck as he currently criss-crossses the country, teaching horse classes 9 months out of the year, we slowly learn of his tragic childhood past and the things that keep him living today (namely his wife and daughter). Brannaman himself would have been a singular idea for a documentary with his childhood fame and descent into familial terror, but "Buck" concentrates on the good that emerged from those dark times, namely a serene ability to understand and calm troubled horses. We know its coming the whole movie and when the twenty minute scene where Buck 'talks' to an aggressive colt, it's a shattering moment that only the best documentaries enable.

Essential Killing

Jerzy Skolomowski's tale of survival could be called simplistic killing. It's sparse narrative- about an escaped Afghani (Vincent Gallo) and his single minded efforts to stay alive in the harsh cold wilderness- doesn't overlay a ton of political analogies. It is a bit much to ask an audience to sympathize with a possible terrorist, but "Essential Killing" never really gives us the chance with a darting, handheld camera that barely contains Gallo in the frame and resists the temptation to give meaning to anyone. It's also a dissonant work.... barely any dialogue is spoken (and not a single word by Gallo), much of the audio is derived from chatter on the military radios as the soldiers hunt their prey and the centrifugal force of emotion is given only at the last second as Gallo's eyes make a decision to kill or run. Technically, "Essential Killing" is riveting, but its overall impact is muted.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Top 5 List: Those Troubled Teens

5. Suburbia

Penelope Speerhis' early 80's drama feels like the blueprint for every other emo-punk rock film to come after. It's Los Angeles setting, populated by landscapes of suburban redundancy and barren graffiti riddled flophouses, fits the nihilistic attitude of its protagonists well. Featuring a cast of no-names (except Flea.... yes that Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers), "Suburbia" follows these youth through endless days spent robbing from the open door garages of neighboring houses, going to punk rock shows, and tattooing the symbol of "TR" (the rejects) on their arms. And when the film takes a detour in slow motion as a pack of wild dogs runs through the neighborhood, Speerhis effectively transitions her experiment into something like an apocalyptic disaster film. If the feeling of being smothered by the sneering kids in "Suburbia" is your choice of a good time, then this film is for you. For that alone, it deserves a spot on this list.

4. A Clockwork Orange

Probably the seminal film about teen anomia (although all the actors portraying these teens were well into their 30's), Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel remains a riveting exploration of sex and violence.

3. Less Than Zero- Cheating a bit here since this 1987 film features college age kids, it's just hard to leave any film derived from a Bret Easton Ellis off the list. The guy just invents such perverted, self absorbed and loathsome characters... yet his films earmark many high points of the last three decades including the outright crazy satirical masterpiece "American Psycho". I do hold a soft spot in my heart for his 2002 adaptation "The Rules of Attraction".... but back to "Less Than Zero". Released in 1987, not only did the film help solidify the rising star status of diverse talents such as Robert Downey Jr, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and James Spader, but I can't remember a film exemplifying the empty nature of sex, drugs and moody nightlife quite like this film. In retrospect, "Less Than Zero" is a zeitgeist film that embodies the 80's in so many ways. And no imagines the creepy aqua blue lights that reflect off a pool at nighttime quite like Ellis and director Mark Kanievska.

2. kids

Like Easton Ellis, one could have their pick from the films of Larry Clark for this list, but its his 1995 debut, "kids" that takes the cake. While "Bully" and "Ken Park" (which I finally managed to track down recently) observe the same dead-end, sexually promiscuous teens in slightly vulgar and uncomfortable ways, "kids" was his breakthrough effort and a film that has grown in admiration over time. Upon release, "kids" was downright shocking, both for its seemingly documentary take on an aimless group of New York kids and its themes of underage sex, violence and complete absence of parental supervision. Watching it today, it still shocks and confounds.... which ultimately is what a good piece of art should probably do. And I had no idea that was a young Rosario Dawson!

1. Over The Edge Raise your hand if this 1979 film- about a sleepy Colorado town whose juvenile delinquents decide to violently overtake the high school during a PTA meeting- didn't scare your socks off. In the early days of HBO, I must have watched this film about a dozen times behind my parent's watchful eyes, not quite understanding all the undertones but equally enthralled by the angry subtext. Starring a young Matt Dillon, "Over the Edge" represents the best of the teenage rebellion genre.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Last 10 Films I've Seen #2

When I go missing as I have for the past couple weeks, one can always blame life, work and postseason baseball. While all this has encumbered me lately, I have seen some good stuff. Last 10 films I've seen:

1. Drive(2011), Nicholas Winding Refn- People say its flashy and moody and all style over substance, but I call it the best film I've seen yet this year, pulsing with quiet emotion between Gosling and Mulligan and ferocious bouts of violence. I've seen it 3 times in the theater and its still not enough to satisfy my craving.

2. Everything Must Go (2011), Dan Rush- It's nice to see Will Ferrell dial down the comedy to a steady two or three, but this precocious film still manages to be treacly and a bit mundane.

3. Catching Hell (2011), Alex Gibney- See the Chicago Cubs implode during game six of the NLCS in 2003 and then watch as the crowd shifts blame to one unlucky spectator. Gibney's documentary about the Steve Bartman incident is insightful, perceptive and even manages to wrap its moral around a Biblical anecdote. Terrific stuff for baseball fans and humans in general.

4. Moneyball (2011), Bennett Miller- Insular to the baseball fan, denying the big game climax and staying focused on the intellectual meanderings behind the scene, one has to give Miller's film props for staying so true to the book. Not the masterpiece its being projected as, but ultimately a very good film with a strong Brad Pitt performance as Billy Beane.

5. The Four Times (2011), Michaelangelo Frammartino- Heartbreakingly simple in its prime conceit- the transformation of a soul from person to animal to object- Frammartino's film is a wonder to behold, especially its long, long single shot that ranks up there with the best physical comedians of Keaton and Chaplin. And the image of a baby goat freezing to death under a tree is a seemingly innocent image that I cannot shake.

6. Hobo With A Shotgun (2011), Jason Eisener- The bottom of the barrel. Not only does the film take its faux 70's approach to the very edge of tolerance, but its over-the-top violence and student acting pushes things way beyond the bearable.

7. Downhill Racer (1969), Michael Ritchie- Auteur Ritchie does it again by taking an ordinary story of skiing competitors and crafts something hugely original. Scenes end at just the right moment before the 'big acting moment' lending a downtrodden aspect, the camera roves around Robert Redford's chiseled good looks with dexterity and the film ends on a magnificent moment.

8. Contagion (2011), Steven Soderbergh- Another competitor for best film of the year, Soderbergh's terrifying- and for a 'germaphobe' like myself, I mean terrifying- disease film takes a bit of the procedural from "And the Band Plays On", steals a bit from Michael Crichton, but soon becomes its own immersive experience. The first hour is cold, analytical and propulsive.

9. Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976), Paul Mazursky- The life of several bohemian young 'uns in Greenwich Village during the 1950's is not one of Mazursky's shining moments. Indulgent and uninvolving, it lost me pretty quickly.

10. Party Girl (1958), Nicholas Ray- I understand why the French Nouvelle Vague love this film so much. Ray's camera practically makes love to Cyd Charisse and she does her slinky best to give it right back. Almost too sumptuous at times, the film becomes kinetic during her dance scenes and then settles into a pretty damn good gangster flick with windows and doors opening up to splendid painted backdrops. I'm so looking forward to TCM's Nick Ray tribute this month!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Appreciation: Takeshi Kitano

Violent Cop (1989) ***½ - Kitano’s debut emerges with a flurry of themes and ideas that will be processed and revisited over the years- from Kitano’s caricature of his slouched-shouldered, deadpan police detective to the subliminal editing style that cuts hard on gunshots, knife wounds and kicks, “Violent Cop” has it all. Beginning as a comedy of sorts as Kitano chases down criminals with his car and slaps a young boy into submission of owning up to his crimes, it quickly turns relentlessly bleak and ultra violent when police corruption, yakuza hit men and drug shakedowns overtake the narrative. As a debut film, its remarkable… as the introduction to an exciting new talent in Japanese cinema, it’s a watershed event. And the score, which feels like it belongs in a spaghetti western, continually brings a smile to my face. Now OOP on DVD.

Boiling Point (1990) **½ - A gangster film with a decidedly disjointed feel, Kitano arrives in the second half of the film as a sadistic yakuza member who (sort of) takes untalented baseball player Masaki (Ono Masahiko) under his wing after the young man stirs up trouble with local yakuza. Fully written and directed by Kitano, “Boiling Point” continues Kitano’s fascination with fatalistic overtones and deadpan editing. It also curves his very dark humor into some surprisingly disturbing moments, especially in a night of drinking that turns sexually ambiguous. Now OOP on DVD.

A Scene At the Sea (1991) ***½- Kitano’s ode to the silent film.. And a sweet love story at its core. A deaf mute trash man finds a broken surfboard and immediately becomes addicted to surfing. With his girlfriend in tow, Kitano’s patient film observes the small community that forms along the beaches as Shigeru (Claude Maki) teaches himself to surf. With a beautifully understated score, “A Scene At the Sea” begins to reveal the depth of feeling that Kitano can surface in his films. It’s such a sweet moment when his girlfriend lovingly folds up his clothes on the beach or the small tear that runs down her face when the two shortly break up. And the finale…. Flashing images of the actors posing for the camera or enjoying themselves on the beach is a transcendent idea of real life over fictional cinematic tragedy. Not available on DVD.

Sonatine (1993) **** - Turning back to his yakuza flicks, “Sonatine” assembles the longueurs and comedic bits that dotted his previous films and creates an entire work out of them. Kitano stars as a mid-level mob boss sent south with his clan to clean up a turf war, but ends up the target of the war itself. Forced to hide out on the beach, the men create games, play jokes on each other such as enticing each other into hidden sand traps on the beach and, for Kitano, falling in love with a woman he saves from sexual abuse. It’s all wonderfully paced and enchanting until the violence kicks in again, which imbues the ending with a magnificently crafted sense of doomed obligation. Up until this point, it’s Kitano’s most fully realized piece of filmmaking that would influence so much of his later films.

Getting Any? (1994) *½- Structured like a television sketch comedy, and with laughs that are just as varied, “Getting Any” is Kitano’s waltz back into popular Japanese TV culture with less than distinguished results. A not-to-bright man (Dankan) dreams of getting laid, and he goes about it in all the wrong ways. Poking fun at movies as diverse as “Ghostbusters”, “The Fly” and his own yakuza flicks, “Getting Any” is absurdly great at times and jaw-dropping bad at others.

Kids Return (1996) ***½- At times reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien in the way it charts the progress of a small group of high school students into various life choices after school, “Kids Return” feels like an intimate epic. Narrowing its focus on two childhood friends, the film watches as Shinji (Masanobu Ando) begins a promising path into boxing and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), continuing his bully tactics from school, gets tangled up with a local yakuza gang and rises through the ranks. There are some peripheral (and equally sad) comments on several other students, but the narrative thrust of “Kids Return” stays with Shinji and Masaru as life deals them the blows. Characteristics of Kitano’s sensibilities pop up now and then, but “Kids Return” ultimately presents both lifestyles with humble authenticity and straightforward storytelling.

Fireworks (1997) ****- Kitano’s first real international success, garnering a full write up in “Film Comment” and having both this film and “Sonatine” crop up on numerous critic’s lists. The attention is well deserved. “Fireworks” (or “Hana-bi”) is a moving examination of the yakuza lifestyle juxtaposed against the irrevocable consequences of said life. In his previous films, Kitano has treated violence as something built into the daily routine of his various cops and gangsters. Here, there’s a weight given to the outcome of these choices and its handled superbly in the way Kitano spends time with his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) and paralyzed partner (Ren Oshugi).

Kikujiro (1999) ****- What I wrote about this film way back in early 2001 still rings true: “Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece, austere and picturesque. Kitano is in full visual command of the medium. Comical, tragic, serene… it’s a film that will restore one’s faith in lots of things cinematic- the road movie (although it barely covers approximately 90 miles), the children’s fantasy film and especially the silent days of filmmaking. “Kikujiro” deserved much better from an audience standpoint. Released here in Dallas for only one week during the summer, I think it’s his most accessible and enjoyable film to date. It’s not often that a man steeped in the violent yakuza tradition of a generation steps out of his realm and creates such an honest ‘family’ film.”

Brother (2000) **½ - At some point, Kitano’s first feature shot and co-produced in the States becomes a highly stylized satire of his own films. Banished out of Japan after a turf war wipes out a majority of his clan back home, Kitano quickly finds his half-brother and drug dealing partner Omar Epps and promptly builds his own empire in Los Angeles. Along the way, Kitano guides his Latino, African-American and Asian thugs as they wage war with numerous groups, pulling out all the violent stops in skirmishes that range from the quiet bathroom stabbing to the strobe-lighted machine gun battle underneath an overpass. It’s clear Kitano is having fun, yet “Brother” meanders a bit towards the end and fails to fully realize the potential that a setting such as L.A. could have brought to the effort. It also features some very bad acting at times and its emotional connection between Kitano and Epps feels strained.

Dolls (2002) **½ - It’s amazing how moving a simple slow zoom can be, and Kitano uses that optical movement to full effect in “Dolls”. Weaving three stories about love being deaf, dumb and blind, Kitano’s desire to create something mature works well in spurts. The most prominent of the three tales is the first story concerning a man whose unwise choice to leave his girlfriend and marry the boss’s daughter results in her attempted suicide. To atone for his act, he binds himself to the mentally challenged ex girlfriend and lives out a wandering existence around Tokyo. The second tales, about unrequited love (and stalking) of a pop singer and a yakuza’s fateful trip down memory lane feel less acute and almost forced. The narrative concerning a woman dutifully waiting with lunch everyday on a park bench for her estranged lover is especially maudlin…. Something one would discover in a Nora Ephron rom-com. “Dolls” doesn’t gel as a cohesive whole, but its still an interesting effort from Kitano.

Zatoichi (2003) ***½- Based on the classic Japanese tale of a traveling blind swordsman, Kitano takes this antique story and gives it his own post-modern and highly entertaining spin through brilliantly staged sword fights and some gory CGI bloodshed. Weaving together several tales- Zatoichi (Kitano himself) wandering into town and making friends with an old lady, a young gambler who becomes his sidekick, and two geisha girls hellbent on violent vengeance- the film zips along. And years before “Slumdog Millionaire” ended on an upbeat and self-reflexive dance number, Kitano uses the same trick with zest and color.

Takeshis’ (2005) *** - This is perhaps Kitano’s “8 ½”. Or maybe his “Mulholland Drive”. Whichever, “Takeshis’” is a unique and puzzling experience as Kitano plays two separate (?) men living in Tokyo… one a quiet convenience store clerk with dreams of yakuza grandeur and the other himself, pop star actor Beat Kitano. Opening with the boredom of Beat Takeshi on the set of his new film jokingly titled ‘Hell Beat“, he meets his look-alike in the hallway and signs an autograph for him. The look-alike clerk returns home and begins to fantasize about hit men running into his store, stealing guns and morphing into an invincible yakuza gangster ala the “Sonatine” years. Blending elements from all his previous films and with characters that emerge and then re-emerge as someone else later like a fever dream, “Takeshis” is a real mind screw. There are hints at the end of it all being an actual dream, but I personally love the aspect of it being an absurdist Takeshi extravaganza that replays itself in your mind long after its over. Not available on DVD.

Glory To the Filmmaker! (2007) **- The cheekiness of Kitano continues. Following up the self reflexive nature of “Takeshis”, Kitano returns to a sketch comedy free form cinema more in tune with his mid 90’s “Getting Any”. Again playing himself, the first half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the director at a critical crossroad in his career…. Unable to devote himself fully to any project. Instead, we get snippets of failed projects including “Noh Theater”, a horror film and “Retirement”, a sly black and white tribute to the films of Ozu. The second half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the film that Kitano settles into- a wild, weird mixture of religious cult brainwashing, sumo wrestlers and a mad scientist. In between all this genre-hopping, Kitano turns into a wooden doll whenever the troubles in life get too heavy. As a parody, “Glory To the Filmmaker!” occasionally hits its mark and taken with “Takeshis”, its evident Kitano has his knives sharpened against not only himself but the entire Japanese film industry. As a stand alone film, though, “Glory To the Filmmaker” is all over the map with a screeching sense of humor and satirical jabs that seem to be lost in translation. Not available on DVD.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) ***- The last film in Kitano’s gentler period traces the life of a below average painter from his tragic childhood to married with children. Kitano takes upon the lead role himself, imbuing the film as more a humanistic comedy than drama, choosing to give the limelight to his own weirdly inspired paintings. If one doesn’t take the film too seriously, its probably the closest we can come to having an autobiography of the great artist. Not on DVD.

Outrage (2010) ***½ - It’s best to give in and go with the flow of Kitano’s return-to-gangster-form with “Outrage”. The first 75% of this film is head spinning in the way it shuffles between nameless yakuza hitmen and mob bosses wheeling and double dealing each other to take over territory. The final third of “Outrage” culminates in a series of violent vignettes as each man meets his bloody fate. There are bathroom stall shootings, chopsticks to the ears, dental drills to the face…. And of course good old fashioned gunfights. At one point, “Outrage” resembles Alan Clarke’s nihilistic and angry “Elephant” as the bodies pile up in quick, gruesome set pieces with little regard to identification or motivation. All of this sounds like a bad idea, but Kitano’s violent yarn is liberating in a way. There are subtle streaks of humor, but “Outrage” is mostly serious stuff. I understand Kitano is working on “Outrage 2” which, in and of itself, will be a miracle since no one is left standing here. Not yet available on region 1 DVD.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What's In the Netflix Queue #33

1. Strange Circus (2004)- Filmmaker Shion Sono is someone I'm very interested in since his cult following on the festival circuit with films like "Love Exposure" and "Cold Fish".... both of which I'm told are punishing, extreme works. After loving "Suicide Club" and feeling mixed about "Noriko's Dinner Table", I'm not sure what to expect of this film about family incest and sexual abuse.
2. Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)- I've had this in my queue before, removed it, then put it back in. I'm so over the faux-70's grindhouse aesthetic of Tarantino, Rodriguez et al and this looks like more of the uninspired same. Open mind though!
3. Suburbia (1984)- Penelope Spheeris' mfictional mid-80's look at the Los Angeles punk rock scene and the ensuing ennui.
4. Prince of Darkness (1987)- One of my very favorite John Carpenter films and a bit of a warm up for the upcoming October viewing schedule full of blood, death, zombies and Lucifer himself.
5. Drama/Mex (2006)- Another filmmaker recently thrust into the festival spotlight is Gerardo Naranjo. Being a huge fan of his previous film "I'm Gonna Explode", I'm finally going back to explore this earlier work which sounds more subdued.
6. A Screaming Man (2010)- This African film is described as follows from Netflix: "Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) was a security guard at a posh Chad hotel until its new owners replaced him with his son (Dioucounda Koma). In this nation torn apart by civil war, citizens are called upon to help. But Adam only has one thing to give, forcing him to make a devastating choice. Emile Abossolo M'bo and Djénéba Koné co-star in this powerful drama, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival."
7. Exte: Hair Extensions (2006)- More Shion Sono.
8. The Magician (1958)- I'm guessing this early Ingmar Bergman slipped onto Blu-Ray with little fanfare. Regrettable, I've seen so few of Bergman's smaller films so I'm looking forward to this Max von Sydow starring effort.
9. Your Highness (2011)- Skipped this medieval stoner comedy on release this year....
10. The Human Factor (1975)- No itsamadmadblog list would be complete without one cheesy 70's flick on it, so here it is. "When terrorists kill his beloved family, NATO computer expert John Kinsdale (George Kennedy) fights back by using his technical know-how to track them down and make them pay. Trying their best to keep Kinsdale from dispensing vigilante justice are his friends (John Mills and Rita Tushingham), a U.S. military commander (Arthur Franz) and a police inspector (Raf Vallone). But when an ordinary man is pushed over the edge, reason falls on deaf ears." And its directed by the great Edward Dmytryk!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

70's Bonanza: The Black Windmill

The unfortunate aspect of Don Siegel's 1974 low-fi thriller "The Black Windmill" is that it came so late in his career and, more importantly, after the zeitgeist-capturing greatness of "Dirty Harry" just three years previously. Relegated to scarce TV showings and limited home video distribution, "The Black Windmill" deserves better than that.

Starring Michael Caine as a variation on his Harry Palmer spy caricature, there's an especially nasty tone to this wonderful film. All is fine and dandy until a couple (John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig) kidnap two young boys playing in an abandoned military field. One of the children turns out to be the son of Caine and the couple's intention is far darker than your simple extortion plan. Caine's superiors- including a mustache twirling Donald Pleasance- don't fully believe Caine's serendipitous predicament since the kidnappers are asking for ransom in the exact amount of fine jewels acquired by the agency just days prior. Caine then breaks chain of command and globe trots to Paris and back to the English countryside with a one-man vendetta to rescue his son. As a thriller, "The Black Windmill" is largely unremarkable. It's far less interesting to recount the plot point than to bask in the funky 70's mood of the entire film. We get the ubiquitous parade of MI-5 and MI-6spooks tapping phones and smoking cigarettes in darkened rooms. Caine plays himself like Michael Caine always does... a bit cheeky (none more so than when he winks at a spook he's just outsmarted in the subway terminal) one minute then determined and focused the next. The beauty of "The Black Windmill" lies in the off-center eye an American director like Siegel brings to the project. Caine and his wife, played by Janet Suzman, are on the outs and this tragedy brings them together. In one scene, Caine goes to see her and she's distraught, wandering outside in their lush garden on a cold day and we get a glimpse of her quickly walking into the bushes. Caine follows and the mood is tense before he finds her.... but the thought that her elusive presence generated through quick editing cold be some sort of spook trick hovers over the scene. Also, the ending as Caine finally tracks down Vernon and his crew in the titular structure begins and ends in cathartic violent fashion after immense build-up. It's an ending that doesn't disappoint, fitting perfectly with the cold and calculated expertise of a trained spy like Caine. I certainly loved his sandbag trick, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

"The Black Windmill", adapted from a novel by Clive Egleton, received middling reviews upon release in 1974. After the commercial and critical favor of "Dirty Harry" and "Charley Varrick", I suppose it would be natural for audiences and critics to expect another genre-breaking effort from Siegel who had been doing that sort of thing in his sleep since "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in the mid-fifties. While its true "The Black Windmill" is more of a slow burn than an outright actioner spy thriller, it is a marvelous metaphor for Britain's swinging 60's excess coming home to roost at the highest echelons of power. And it features an exploding briefcase that would make James Bond jealous.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Revisiting the Faves- The Spanish Prisoner

"The Spanish Prisoner" ranked as my number 12 favorite film in 1998.

In every David Mamet film, there's a line of dialogue that becomes its rallying cry or its fateful line of demarcation from normalcy into the con job such as the punishing overuse of "where is the girl?" in "Spartan" or the nonchalant way in which Gene Hackman mutters "it happens" in "Heist". When Steve Martin appears on screen and coolly announces, "I'll give you a thousand dollars for that camera", we fully understand the game has been set afoot.

"The Spanish Prisoner" takes its name directly from an ancient con, as explained by Mamet stalwart Ricky Jay in the film, and its sights are set on meek inventor Campbell Scott. Like a majority of the twists and turns within the film, the very thing (called 'the process') that fuels the narrative is obfuscated. All we know is that inventor Scott has created something that will make Ben Gazzara's company very, very rich. There are talks of "the Japanese" trying to steal it and the FBI on the trail of something or somebody. Mamet's razor sharp dialogue that, like Michael Mann, abhors contractions usually dances around telling the truth. The worst part of all is that we never know who to trust or when. There's soft-spoken and beautiful Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) who seems like an ally and then does things to question her loyalty... just like the best femme fatale. Is the aforementioned Ricky Jay, as Campbell Scott's friend, business partner and lawyer really sick or is there something more insidious about him? Which brings us to Steve Martin in an icy performance that ranks as one of his all time best. He befriends Scott on a vacation island and then continues the friendship back in New York with the promise of setting him up with his sister.... an engagement that never seems to materialize. In all honesty, the film pretty much signals that Martin is the bad guy, yet it continually usurps our expectations in every other sense. "The Spanish Prisoner" is another brilliant con movie in which Mamet excels his three card monty-like attitude with cinematic flare.

Becoming a quiet sensation at the Sundance Film Festival that year, the reviews were mostly favorable for "The Spanish Priosner" despite the seemingly awkward performance of Mamet's wife Pidgeon. While her stilted line readings and formal rigour do ring untruthful at times, it doesn't ruin the film. In fact, I took her performance to be a secondary delight... as if she was trying to re-enact a 1940's femme fatale or maybe playing the role as if her character were being forced to do certain things she had never done before. Regardless, "The Spanish Prisoner" is a wickedly entertaining intellectual thriller. Just feel the subtle tension built up around a brown paper wrapped gift or the terrific moment when the camera slowly pans across an airport X-ray screen to reveal a gun hidden in a possession. And maybe it was the Japanese after all.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Summer catch-up

The Guard

Brendan Gleeson can do this type of thing in his sleep. Portraying a crude, racially insensitive and hooker-obsessed cop in a sleepy Irish seaside town, “The Guard” works largely due to his terrific performance. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the film works as a comedic companion piece to his brother’s film (also starring Gleeson), “In Bruges”, a few years back. A sharp script that tosses out one liners with a frenzy and just the right amount of self reflexive movie references, “The Guard” shouldn’t be taken seriously… even if its narrative deals with psychotic drug dealers and corrupt cops. Also starring Don Cheadle as an FBI agent sent to Ireland to investigate an international drug smuggling ring, the ingenuity of the film is its lackadaisical approach to solving the central crime. While Gleeson and Cheadle disagree and question each other’s idealized stereotypical misgivings, the story works itself out with little effort. “The Guard” reminded me a bit of “The Big Lebowski” in the way it takes its noir grounding and answers everything while its main characters wander around with fantasized notions of grandeur. It’s a fine line, and McDonagh handles it beautifully. Also great is the appropriation of the western genre with its wide angle lens and sweeping pans of the Irish countryside, none more so gleeful than a portentous 360 degree pan between a cop and a 10 year old boy on girl’s bike. See this film before it shuttles from the theaters.

Road To Nowhere

In “Road To Nowhere”, director Monte Hellman has his star couple watch a lot of movies in their downtime, selecting clips from Bergman‘s “The Seventh Seal” and Erice‘s “Spirit of the Beehive”. These clips are first seen within the confines of the TV screen and eventually overtaking the whole image. This immersion into these great films is an apt comparison to “Road To Nowhere” itself, a meta-film that continually shifts between real time and a movie-within-the-movie with little to no guidance. Starring Tygh Runyan as a young filmmaker making a movie about a real-life money grab and double suicide in North Carolina, he discovers a relatively unknown actress (the beautiful Shannyn Sossamon) and hires her to play the leading femme fatale. An insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) weasels his way into the good graces of the production crew and slowly insinuates the idea that the “actress” may actually be the femme fatale in real life. The collision between supposed real life, cinematic recreation and tabloid gossip (refracted through the presence of a young blogger on the set who actually covered the scandal, played by Dominique Swain) becomes head spinning. Like Abel Ferrera’s “Dangerous Game”, Hellman plays the same nasty trick as director and actress fall in love and the lines between reality and fiction blur. “Road To Nowhere” is a film that demands future viewings and weaves a rhythmic spell on the viewer through its highly stylized acting and slow camera movements. It’s also pretty damn great and a galvanizing return for maverick filmmaker Hellman.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Produced and written by Guillermo del Toro, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has his fingerprints all over it from its leading female child to the gothic, labyrinth style house where the terror takes place. Freshly removed from her mother in Los Angeles and whisked away to the cold environment of Rhode Island, young Sally (Bailee Madison) soon discovers some nasty little creatures living under the house and aching to feed off her teeth. As the aloof parents, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are merely serviceable in their roles, sublimated to the father who thinks it’s all in his daughter’s imagination and the mother-figure who slowly empathizes with the child. The problem with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is that its aim seems to be pitched somewhere between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and “Gremlins” without really pulling off either. Based on a 1970’s TV movie, it is marginally refreshing to see a film that doesn’t embrace the current adrenalized market for horror films, but it’s unconvincing narrative and stock characters are just as antique as the Polaroid camera that becomes a singular plot point.

The Debt

Despite the ads that sell this as some type of action-packed “Munich” knock off, the real reason to appreciate John Madden’s “The Debt” is its total lack of explosive action and the marvelous performance of Jessica Chastain in her 12,000th film this year. Bouncing back and forth in time between a 1966 Isreali intelligence mission to capture and expose a Nazi death camp doctor and the ramifications of this mission on its agents some 30 years later, “The Debt” handles all this moral gravity with depth. Also starring Sam Worthington (who fares the worst in it all), “The Debt” slowly raises the tension as the mission progresses and things get complicated both politically and emotionally between the MOSSAD agents. While “The Debt” goes a bit AWOL towards its finale, it’s a sure-footed film for 90% of the way that doesn’t deserve the late summer dumping ground its been afforded.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Humble Beginnings of David Cronenberg

The following is an entry to the Director's Chair blogathon being hosted by Matte Havoc.

I doubt there's an orifice or body secretion that David Cronenberg doesn't like. Add to that some weird fetishes and his unwavering view on mankind's clinical obsession between sex and science and one arrives at a truly strange yet brilliant body of work. His best films deal with body infestation ("Shivers" and "The Fly") or the idea of twisted connections of obsession and technological mutation ("Videodrome and "existenz"). Al of these ideas are present in Cronenberg's debut film, "Stereo" (1969), and follow up "Crimes of the Future" (1970).

Ok, full disclosure here- both of these early efforts are not very good films. Yet there is some merit in the ideas and thoughts being explored. Like all great filmmakers, there are themes and predilections that will be analyzed and evolved throughout the remainder of his career. While "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" suffer from true student film shortcomings, they serve as fascinating footnotes for a filmmaker searching for an identity.

"Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" deal with similar themes. Both were filmed around the University of Toronto in which Cronenberg attended during the 1960's. While "Stereo" is black and white, "Crimes of the Future" is his first full length color film. Neither of the films, which details the various wanderings of a quizzical scientist, used on location sound editing, forcing them to have a full narration track added in post-production which lends a very detached and monotone feel to the works. Imagine listening to a psychologist read his graduate studies paper aloud and one gets the idea of Cronenberg's desire to lull the viewer with phrases such as "transmorphic inebriation". In essence, "Crimes of the Future", which is the more watchable of the two films, takes a larger financial backing and explores the themes of "Stereo". Starring Ronald Mlodzik as a black coated doctor wandering around the post-modern architecture of the college, he has created the "House of Skin", an institute that treats men inflicted with a disease caused by the use of cosmetics in the future. After his one and only patient dies (through an excruciatingly painful act of a foam liquid being secreted from his eyes, ears and mouth), the doctor wanders from institute to institute coming into contact with other men suffering from various afflictions. Women have all but been annihilated from the very same cosmetic apocalypse, yet there are mutations that crop up in his wanderings such as a male patient who is said to grow female organs before they fall of and re-grow later. Yes, "Crimes of the Future" plays out just as weird as all this sounds. There are some scenes of the doctor playing with other men's feet in some sort of telepathic showcase and a group of men hiding a little girl, whose ominous face and blank stare the film ends on. As a cohesive whole, "Crimes of the Future" fails pretty miserably.

Medical and philosophical ramblings aside, there are some things "Crimes of the Future" does well. Besides looking terrific, Cronenberg's use of light and shadow eclipse some of his later work which preferred to show the violence in full display. His fascination with one's body turning on itself is also a recurring theme as the previously mentioned secretion of fluids signals the death of several patients. It's also not hard to identify his genre-pushing methods of having the doctor (Mlodzik) be mildly attracted to the fluids, eventually tasting them himself. With "Crash" on the way twenty five years later, its obvious Cronenberg wanted to disgust and fascinate in perverse ways early on. Also, the very title itself would be the "aka" title to his 1997 film "existenz"... still one of my very favorite Cronenberg films and the most trenchant examination of virtual reality ever presented on film. Lastly, Cronenberg's now famous image of an exploding head in "Scanners" have their humble beginnings in both "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" with their main characters constantly alluding to the telepathic powers inherent in them. In "Crimes of the Future" especially, there are several scenes of the doctor placing a bare foot to his forehead, trying to manipulate the mind of his patient. The budget wasn't there for an exploding head, but one can sure bet Cronenberg would have figured out a way to include this if he could.

But its the simple traits of "Crimes of the Future" that are the most amazing. Clearly ahead of his time with content, Cronenberg's soundtrack is a truly unnerving experience, full of disconcerting static noises, birds chirping and mechanical droning sounds that add an otherwordly feel to the futuristic pinnings of his film. Also, technically speaking "Crimes of the Future" is a polished film, full of magisterial tracking shots down hallway corridors and fish eye lenses shots that distort the narrative in that oh so good 60's way. Even if I doubt I'll ever watch these two films again, I feel a bit more schooled in the Cronenberg method of cinema... a career that revels in the excess of the nightmarish and wades through the ugly waters of body secretions like no other.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vermeers and Frustrated Fathers: 2 From Jon Jost

Working on the margins of even independent cinema since the late 70's and carving out a uniquely original voice, filmmaker Jon Jost really came into his own during the early and mid 90's. The benefactor of several retrospectives of his work and lavish write-ups by critics around the world during this time, it's all to sad that a majority of his work is still unavailable on any type of home video distribution today. And as for the unique voice part, once one sees a Jost film, it sticks inside your head like nothing else, developing its own rhythm and visual scheme that instantly identifies itself as something completely organic.

The one Jost film that is currently available on DVD, "All the Vermeers In New York", is as good a place as any for novices to start. Divided into a series of scenes that play out with much patience, it's a collage of several people in New York City who come together through a fateful meeting in a museum between stockbroker Mark (Stephen Lack) and aspiring French actress Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet). He instantly falls in love with her, comparing her beauty and high forehead to the paintings of Vermeer he observes her studying. Growing out from there, we meet Anna's room ate Felicity (Grace Phillips) who helps Anna remain a cool distance from her suitor on their first meeting when the girls pretend Anna doesn't speak English. Felicity comes from a wealthy background and we observe her arguing with her father over the (possible) immoral use of her name involved with his investments. There's also an unusual scene between a painter (Gordon Weiss), desperate for money from the gallery owner for his paintings which ends with him cutting his work directly out of its frame. The idea of money, financial incongruities and art waver throughout Jost's film. We observe mark's stressful days in a stockbroker firm in two long takes as he wheels and deals on the phone. Felicity obviously wants to distance herself from her father's potentially dirty money, but just can't seem to afford to. And as for the central relationship between Mark and Anna, Jost avoids heading into rom-com niceties, exposing the relationship as something true on Mark's part but predatory on Anna's... such as when she asks him for a loan to help pay her rent then pines for her "boyfriend" back home in Paris in the next scene. If anything, "All the Vermeer In New York" is a cautionary tale about forced attraction in the urban jungle. Does Mark, who seems to frequent the Met often, simply fall in love with the perfect idea of Anna or is he truly in love with her? In typical Jost fashion, he raises more questions than answers, opting to portray a mood and feeling rather than a cut and dry romance. Two scenes in particular go a long way in sustaining this mood- the first is a methodical tracking shot around the halls of a museum... a shot Jost loves to repeat in later films such as "The Bed You Sleep In"... and the second is a trip to the pinnacle of the Twin Towers where both Anna and Mark espouse their views on life and ultimately probably define why they are not made for each other.

In 1990, Jost released "Sure Fire", a film about as far away from the concrete hustle and bustle of the New York art world one could get. Starring Tom Blair as Wes, a fast-talking real estate developer in Utah, it's a spare drama that builds to a violent climax with very little effort. Blair is the archetypal Jost leading man.... articulate, calculating and without a swear word in his vocabulary. In his numerous scenes, both at work and home, Blair sends out a host of "by gollys" and "you can bet on that" in his monologues. Small glimpses of his home life reveal his wife is struggling with their marriage, none more so penetrating than in a five minute take as she ruminates on her life through an allegorical tale of a trapped farm animal.

The final half of the film involves Wes taking two friends and his son on a hunting trip. One scene, as Wes gives his son his first hunting rifle than spends an extraordinary amount of time explaining the do's and dont's of firearm safety, Jost creates immense tension seemingly out of thin air. Throughout its relatively short (80 minutes) run time, "Sure Fire" etches into the viewer's consciousness that something terrible is on the horizon and then promptly delivers. While neither "Sure Fire" not "All the Vermeers In New York" play by the rules, they are both galvanizing examples of the experimental and independent nature of Jon Jost. Even though there are 2000 miles in between their stories and settings, both films acutely emphasize that unhappiness and the unpredictability of human nature can strike anywhere and anyone.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If I Programmed a Film Festival #3

Day 1:

**** Euro Crime Series

1. The Last Round (1975)- Italian version of "Yojimbo" as a drifter pits two warring families against each other.

2. Magnet of Doom (1963)- Unreleased Jean Pierre Melville road movie starring Jean Paul Belmondo as he high tails it to the deep U.S. South. Wonderful, oddly observed Americana from Melville. Review coming soon.

****World Premier

1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2010)- Because everything I've read about it sounds terrific. From Film Comment, "Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Grand Jury prize co- winner is an intoxicatingly strange, oblique police procedural..."

**** Auteuristic Western series

1. Duck You Sucker (1971)- Probably Sergio Leone's least known western is a fun romp with Rod Steiger and James Coburn.

2. The Claim (2000)- Michael Winterbottom's lush and beautiful western that grows better on each viewing.

3. The Long Riders (1980)- Walter Hill made some incredible movies, and this one with a gimmick of starring real life brothers, imbues the viewer with terrific atmosphere and mood.

**** 70's Bonanza Faves

1. Man On A Swing- Frank Perry's deliriously good (and hugely unknown) film about a police detective (Cliff Robertson) wading through real life murder and possible psychic tomfoolery.

Day 2:

**** Auteuristic Western Series Part 2

1. Rancho Notorious (1952)- Possibly my very favorite Fritz Lang film... a western that inverts the genre into something more like his noir films. It just teems with great stuff.

2. The Train Robbers (1972)- Burt Kennedy's AARP western is a good time, with John Wayne leading a group of men on the hunt for stolen gold. And it features what is probably the best final line in any Wayne western.

3. Open Range (2003)- I can forgive Kevin Costner for his rambling "Wyatt Earp" with this vicious, tightly constructed actioner. One of the best westerns of the past 20 years IMO.

**** World Premier 2

1. Drive (2011)- I can always dream right.

**** Euro Crime continuation tickets half price for these two movies!

1. The Master Touch (1972)- Kirk Douglas is stealthy and stellar as an aging safecracker doing one last job. Terrific heist and great double crosses abound!

2. The American Friend (1977)- Wim Wender's real 70's masterpiece with Bruno Ganz sucked into a plot of murder and deception with art thief Dennis Hopper.

****70's Bonanza Faves

1. The Black Windmill (1974)- Don Siegel's tough as nails film about a man (Michael Caine) who takes matters into his own hands when his son is kidnapped.