Sunday, March 20, 2011

Top 5 List: In Space, No One Can Hear You Go Mad

5. The Dark Side of the Moon

Probably the most obscure movie on this list, it's still immensely entertaining in that direct-to-video early 90's way. Written about at length here, "The Dark Side of the Moon" was directed by no one of real fame (DJ Webster) and starred no one of real notoriety. But it does seem to come from a genuine place and it does tweak the idea of madness in space into some interesting theories about the dark side of the moon, the Bermuda Triangle.... and the devil himself. The production values do lack something, but its the film's atmosphere that more than makes up for any economic shortcomings.

4. Planet of the Vampires

Now here's a really interesting film. Ever wonder how one of those Italian giallo films would play in space? Mario Bava attempts just that here with "Planet of the Vampires". Take all the visual trademarks of the wildly popular giallo genre- i.e. garish lighting, extravagantly cheap looking costumes, fog drenched settings and a distinct emphasis on obscuring the killer or killers through POV shots or off screen menace- and one gets the basic set up. But I make "Planet of the Vampires" sound worse than it is. I actually really like this film and it does build up some incredible tension while leapfrogging the idea of "madness in space" for future consumption. A crew of astronauts lose contact with their shipmates and are forced to land on a strange planet where the crew members begin to resort to mind-numbing fits of rage and violence against one another. Bava stretches out the appearance of the 'vampires' to sustain the film's thriller status while developing a unique metaphor for our modern definition of vampire. Bava's film has long been out of print, but i recently emerged on Netflix's streaming service.

3. Sphere

Ok, a bit of a cheat here, I admit. "Sphere" takes place under the ocean instead of outer space, but its emphasis on cramped confinements, lost space ships and side plots involving the 4 specialists (Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Liev Schrieber and Sam Jackson) facing their worst fears all fit into this list. I'm an unabashed lover of Barry Levinson's somewhat loopy and intellectually stuffy adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel, and the film hasn't diminished in my opinion since seeing it opening night back in 1998. "Sphere" tosses out alot of ideas- time travel, psycholgical warfare, killer jellyfish- and its oblique ending never registered with the mainstream movie-going public and that's a shame. "Sphere" still remains an under appreciated film that examines the treacherous outcome of dealing with extraterrestrial methods, even when the best minds in the world are in charge.

2. Event Horizon

For many movie fans of my generation, "Event Horizon" was THE best madness in space film to come along. Not only is it an effective science fiction tale, but an out and out horror film that managed to combine the best elements of both genres. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan and Joely Richardson, the crew is assigned to recovering a ship that was lost years earlier and then re-appears. Of course, something evil is brought aboard and each astronaut is forced to confront some of their scariest thoughts. The joy of "Event Horizon" is not in the reductive narrative, but its eerily timed scares and psychological dread. Director Paul W.S. Anderson has gone on to create some really awful muck, but "Event Horizon" has that something that still makes it relevant for this type of list.

1. Solaris (1972) and Solaris (2002)

The definitive films about the possible ill-fated effects of a lonely trek through outer space, I suppose the real master of the genre is Russian novelist Stamislaw Lem who wrote the original novel. A grounbreaking mixture of guilt, science fiction and political repression, the novel is a terrific read which gives us two very different films. Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky's version of the novel is ponderous and trance-inducing with its long stretches of space travel (and earthbound travel as well). Stephen Soderbergh's 2002 update runs half the length of Tarkovsky's original but has a serene style all its own. Though visually miles apart, both films retain the central idea of an astronaut growing increasingly mad by the effects of the planet Solaris. These two efforts may seem like easy additions to the madness in space genre, but they're both illuminating pieces of art that continue to expand and open up new ideas everytime I watch them.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

DVD Shout Out: It's Kind of a Funny Story

There are always those films that slip the cracks, and for me, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "It's Kind of A Funny Story" is one of them. Arriving and disappearing from theaters in the blink of an eye last year,I can assuredly say that if I had seen it earlier, it would have surely ranked pretty high on my official list of the best of the year.

Fleck and Boden have amassed an incredible track record of piercing films, from the indie drama "Half Nelson" to the acutely moving minor league baseball saga known as "Sugar". So I suppose it really comes as no surprise that they hit another home run here with this modest, affectionate and sweetly engrossing film starring Keir Gilchrist as a somewhat depressed (but mostly stressed out) student who checks himself into a mental hospital and ends up helping everyone else more than himself. It all sounds horribly cliched, and there are a few moments of Wes Anderson-like whimsy in the first half that threaten to engulf the narrative, but "It's Kind of a Funny Story" also hits such high notes of honesty and cathartic energy between its characters that it comes off as something more.

And then comes this scene:

... and from there on I was hooked. Emma Roberts, the suicidal teenager who forms a relationship with Craig (Gilchrest), doesn't formulate a role full of nervous ticks or emo irrationality. It's a very human performance. And that's the real beauty of the film, which is based on the acclaimed autobiographical novel by Ned Vizzini. Even though the central setting is a mental ward and the jokes could be simple jabs at insanity, each charatcer is developed with warmth, humor and depth. There's the weird, but ultimately charming, way in which a fellow patient named Johnny (Adrian Martinez) whispers "Johnny don't phone kiss" at the end of a telephone call.... or the immense performance by Zach Galifianakis as the man who quickly befriends Craig. While the film never specifically spells out his troubles or the outcome of his problems, Galifianakis portrays Bobby as someone caught in the downward spiral of life with little idea of how to stop-gap the issues. Again, its a very human performance that displays humor, rage and complete understanding.

With a soundtrack by Broken Social Scene and Fleck/Boden's natural instinct for editing and camera movement- i.e. a glorious tracking shot down a hospital hallway as Gilchrest and Roberts try to find their way to the roof or a strong cut to her face as she blows away an eyelash he's just removed from her face- "It's Kind of a Funny Story" should not have gotten lost in the Holiday season rush last year. It's a distinct pleasure.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Revisiting the Faves: The Bed You Sleep In

"The Bed You Sleep In" ranked as one of my favorite films from 2002.

Jon Jost made what was perhaps his most accessible film with "The Bed You Sleep In", a modest drama that weaves two types of narrative filmmaking into a perfect blend of image and emotion. Known for his avant garde works of the 80's and 90's (which, sadly, very few are available on any type of home video distribution), "The Bed You Sleep In" was produced in 1993 but didn't see much of a distribution until 2002 when I caught up with it at the Dallas Video Festival. Part documentary about the slow Pacific Northwestern life of dwellers along the Oregon coast and part searing family drama, "The Bed You Sleep In" stars Tom Blair as Ray, a lumber mill owner besieged by all types of bad luck. A recent government initiative to tax a certain type of wood threatens his livelihood and business. He's affronted by a young wandering preacher (Thomas Morris) who warns of dire future consequences if he doesn't change his ways. Then, in an unnerving shift in tone, Ray comes home one day to find his wife, crying and distraught over the letter written by their daughter who's away at college. It levies particularly harsh blame at the feet of Ray. Crafted like an intimate novel, the remainder of the film plays out like a complicated guessing game of guilt and refusal, working itself out through its characters' slow-speech pattern and trance-like dissolves. It's certainly a Jost film.

As previously mentioned, "The Bed You Sleep In" feels as if its broken into two distinct parts. For the first hour or so, Jost is content to establish mood and place through long, static exterior shots of the unique Northwestern town where the film takes place. From the rusted steel of street barriers to a gentle running stream between a rain-soaked landscape, "The Bed You Sleep In" could be taken as a tourist advertisement for the area's very Zen like exteriors. In the film's most bravura set-piece, Jost examines the minutia of the town's greasy spoon diner through an elegant, four minute tracking shot that pivots and turns 360 degress around every corner of the restaurant, eavesdropping on the customer's conversations and displaying the complex actions attributed to serving the dishes behind the counter. At first, this may seem like cinematic gamesmanship (which Jost is very adept at, by the way), but it serves a purpose as well. "The Bed You Sleep In" takes its time and seems to absorb the very lifestyle of Ray, mapping out his comfort zone so when the bomb drops later, we fall into the tragic circumstances. Basically, its the inaction of a travelogue film turning radically active later.

The consequences, as foreshadowed by the wandering preacher, do come home to roost for Ray, and Jost handles it with the rigor in which he handles most everything in his career... a slow dissolve with Ray's face covering the blue tinted windhsield of his car as he drives. "The Bed You Sleep In" doesn't aim for tragic melodrama, but it very nearly gets there in its own unique way.

"The Bed You Sleep In" is available on DVD.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New Stuff, Finally

The Adjustment Bureau

George Nolfi’s directorial debut, “The Adjustment Bureau”, is an involving and slightly loopy love story that works itself out through the enormous chemistry between Matt Damon and the lovely Emily Blunt. Essentially a tale about the choice between free will and the more darker-themed tones of a matrix-like web of higher authority, the film never misses a beat. Emily Blunt, who I’ve admired for several films now, lights up with the screen with every appearance and its on the interaction between her and Matt Damon that the film wins the viewer over. Basically, this is a sci-fi story with heart. When things get downright other worldly at the end, I was pulling for Blunt and Damon. But the real star here is the Philip K. Dick story that “The Adjustment Bureau” is based upon. Dick continues to provide Hollywood with a wealth of ideas based on his intelligently progressive short stories and “The Adjustment Bureau” (adapted by ex-screenwriter Nofli himself) retains the verve of science fiction while maintaining an emotional core that doesn’t feel out of place in the slate of good modern love stories. A very nice way to start out my early movie-going year.

Hall Pass

Maybe I should have waited to write the above line before succumbing to the slight urge to see the latest Farrelly Brothers movie, “Hall Pass”. I would say their career is long beyond the apex of “There’s Something About Mary”, or does that film simply live in my memory for its groundbreaking use of gross/shock humor in the mid to late 90’s? Either way, they try to regain their comedic maestro crown again with more shock humor, including penis jokes, frontal male nudity and a sneezing scene that could give the hair gel scene a run for its money. The problem… none of it even made me snicker. It all feels like the film is trying way too hard to push the limits, which seems to be the fault of so many comedies today. Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fisher and the incredibly funny Christina Applegate seem wasted as the married couples taking a breather from each other in order to reclaim their golden days of being single. The most touching moments in this film have to do with the realizations that everyone is passed their prime, especially when the guys’ first night out on the town ends up as a gorge-fest on food at the local Applebees… something we can all relate to. Less relatable is the idea that a golden beauty like Nicky Whelan would be attracted to Owen Wilson… or maybe even that Applegate would have married a guy like Sudeikis? I’m analyzing “Hall Pass” more than it deserves. Pretty awful.

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz, whose previous features “Quiet City” and “Dance Party USA’ where introspective additions to the DIY movement of current independent filmmaking, ups the ante a bit with a low-fi thriller of sorts in “Cold Weather”. Cris Lankeneau is Doug, a Portland, Oregon native stuck in a dead end job with an affection for Sherlock Holmes novels. When his ex-girlfriend visits town and promptly disappears, Doug enlists the help of his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and friend Carlo (Raoul Castillo) to investigate the matter. Katz’s interest here resides less in a tidy resolution to the mystery aspects of the film, which makes it a defiantly proper “mumble core” movie in which atmosphere and awkward silence is more of a preoccupation than narrative cohesiveness. “Cold Weather” is a challenging film, none more so than the fact that Katz so eloquently builds up momentum in its thriller aspect only to disappoint with an anti-climactic finale that has one scratching their heads. I’m all for oblique endings (see “No Country For Old Men”), but “Cold Weather” leaves one with very little to savor after its abrupt ending.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Children Of War: Edward Yang's "A Brighter Summer Day"

In the annuls of ironic film titles, Edward Yang's 4 hour masterpiece certainly takes the cake. Taking place in the summer of 1959 and the following year, Yang's film is autobiographical in the sense that his family lived through the same turbulent times. Yang's family was displaced from China into Taiwan during the late 40's and the film's slow-evolving burst of violence is based on an actual incident. Everything in between is immersing and, at times, overwhelming. "A Brighter Summer Day" does focus on one central family (and essentially a young boy named Sir) as they face problems both intimately and politically.

Released in 1991 and growing marginally over the next few years where it received critical support slowly when it was shown at various film festivals or Yang retrospectives, "A Brighter Summer Day" has been my number one sought after film for several years now and it doesn't disappoint. It's length is almost necessary... observing a sprawling group of students and street gangs as they fall in love, fight with each other, deal with domestic problems within their families and, perhaps most importantly, swoon with Elvis Presley records and diligently decipher the lyrics. Still, the street gang violence eventually overtakes as the crux of the film, with its many young child stars evolving from innocent bouts of fistfighting and gangster posturing to bats and samurai swords. Yang quietly belies the fact that the children's seething angst mirrors the unhappiness of their parents resentment for leaving their homeland for an uncertain future.

Like the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, "A Brighter Summer Day" is an instinctual film. Yang never rushes any shots, resorts to simple camera movement and gentle dollies to enhance the narrative, and allows the lingering strands of his multiple stories to breathe. For example, one of the surface characters is gang leader Honey. He's only mentioned for the first two hours or so, and when he does finally arrive on-screen, his name is never mentioned but the viewer gets an immediate idea of his presence. And while the many gang fights can be disorienting as to their root cause (and Yang doesn't help matters by obscuring most of them at night time or during a driving rainstorm), what's important is the gradual impact they have on Sir (Chen Chang) and his impressionable group of friends. Thrown into the mix are several girlfriends to the gangs that only raise the hormone and jealousy level, eventually causing the roof to blow off in shocking ways.

Yang would make several more films after "A Brighter Summer Day" dealing with some of the same issues of cultural and political displacement. Of course, 2001 would bring him international acclaim with his powerful film "Yi Yi". That would be the last film he would make, passing away from cancer in 2007. I can't imagine a more inspiring way to memorialize a life in "A Brighter Summer Day". It's full of so many gentle moments amid the violence and it lovingly recreates the excitement of discovering rock and roll music like few films. Our first loves may not result in the type of violence that spews out in Sir, but the feeling of uncertaintly and the desire to simply blend in are universal themes and "A Brighter Summer Day" crystallize it.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Produced and Abandoned #9

Ten more titles deserving a commercial DVD release.

1. The Bed Sitting Room (1969)- Richard Lester's post apocalyptic... comedy? Avant garde absurdest drama? I've only heard it described as an extremely loony affair and I just know I have to see it. Update: looks like its available on Netflix Instant Play and a showing is scheduled on TCM later this month.
2. Ministry of Fear (1944)- Fritz Lang's nightmarish film is odd, but highly effective. The first half of this film plays like a 40’s David Lynch movie- including a suburban carnival that takes place at midnight, an eerie entrance for a blind man on a train and a seance sequence that ends in murder. Once the plot (concerning Ray Milland being mistaken for a spy and hunted by a shadow NAZI organization) is defined, “Ministry of Fear” becomes a little more commercial in its second half. Still, fans of Lang deserve to have this available.
3. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)- Jerry Schatzberg's psychological drama about a model (Faye Dunaway) having a nervous breakdown leads the pack of under-represented Schatzberg on DVD, followed by "The Seduction of Joe Tynan", "Street Smart" and "Sweet Revenge".
4. The Stone Tape (1972)- British television show that scared the shit out of me as a kid. I found a copy recently, and while it's not as terrifying as I remembered, its primal exploration of ghost phenomenon recording devices and bare-bones chills (ohh that high pitched scream) manage to create an entertaining viewing experience.
5. The Stolen Children (1992)- Gianni Amelio would make waves a few years later with his well regarded 1995 film "L,America", but "The Stolen Children" ranked in quite a few lists in '92 and took home the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Cannes Film Festival.
6. Mickey One (1965)- It's still a shame that Arthur Penn's ode to the French New Wave isn't readily available. Warren Beatty gives a fairly vapid performance, but part of that's the point. As a nightclub performer mixed up with the mob, Penn's black and white cinematography continually offers something new and the use of disorientation and dream sequences giddily recall Fellini. Sure, "Mickey One" can be found quite easily on cable, but it would still be nice to own the DVD.
7. Kid Blue (1973)- One more of the lost Dennis Hopper films of the 70's by veteran TV director James Frawley, its narrative recalls the story of a young man (Hopper) who arrives in a small Texas town and becomes involved with seduction and crime. I've often read this is yet another under seen revisionist western in the loosest of terms. It also stars Peter Boyle and Warren Oates.
8. Many Wars Ago (1970)- Another Francesco Rosi makes the list. I admire this Italian director so much, yet so little of his work is available. I'm not holding out much hope for this one either, as google searches yield very little besides an obscure San Francisco screening 5 years ago. I suppose I should be glad there's at least one print out there. This film tracks the disastrous results of an Italian army unit's attack during World War I. Also known as "Not Another War".
9. Little Fauss and Big Halsey (1970)- "A story of two motorcycle racers, the inept, unsuspecting Little Faus (Micheal J.Pollard) and the opportunistic, womanizing Halsey Knox (Redford)".... from the description. Go to any MIA DVD movie list and this title shows up over and over and over....
10. Dudes (1987)- Antone else besides me remember this movie from the VHS cover? Jon Cryer and someone else dressed as cowboy and indian?