Monday, December 24, 2012

What's In the Netflix Queue #36

Been a while for this! Interspersed among the bevy of older titles in my current queue sits a handful of 2012 films I missed. This is my favorite time of year... everyone is coming out with their best of lists and I myself am scurrying to catch up and watch a flurry of movies for my own favorites of the year. So, the next ten titles in my queue:

1. The Turin Horse (2012)- Bela Tarr's cinematic sensibility hasn't quite caught on with my tastes yet, but his latest film has landed resoundingly on so many critics lists (and some of the ones I respect I most) that I feel its worth a shot.

2. Mr. Arkadin (1962)- Orson Welles' Cold War thriller sound intriguing, yet its one of his films that I never hear mentioned. Why?

3. Winter In Wartime (2009)- Described in Netflix as "This sumptuously photographed drama focuses on 14-year-old Michiel as he wrestles with family loyalties, painful choices between safety and courage, and the harsh realities of the last, desperate winter of World War II."

4. David and Lisa (1962)- One of the early efforts from hugely under appreciated director Frank Perry about an emotionally damaged couple becoming attracted to each other.

5. The Housemaid (2011)- "A wealthy family's new maid, Eun-yi (Do-yeon Jeon), attracts the attention of Hoon (Jung-Jae Lee), the man of the house, and a fiery affair develops between them. But although Hoon signs Eun-yi's checks, he's not the one controlling the relationship. One secret leads to another, until Eun-yi threatens to destroy the entire family. This update of the 1960 chiller was an Official Selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival."

6. Unforgiveable (2012)- Latest subtle thriller from Andre Techine that has crept on several critics year end lists.

7. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)- Rewatch of this terrific existential British drama.

8. Nenette et Boni (1996)- I guess this was released on DVD recently with little fanfare. It's one of the few Claire Denis films I haven't seen and plan on remedying that soon.

9. Bigger Than Life (1956)- After I finish up my current appreciation of director Shohei Imamura (post coming soon), filmmaker Nick Ray is the next director whose total career I'll jump into.

10. Burst City (1982)- More craziness from Sogo Ishii.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Unintentional Double Feature: Rolling Stones Documentaries

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Current Cinema 14

Anna Karenina

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” faces a tough challenge: creating something vibrant and refreshing out of a dusty classic Russian novel without trivialization. It does this magnificently. “Anna Karenina” is a highly imaginative interpretation and a cinematic treat. This is a visualization where the carnal affection of love-at-first-sight between two people dancing is symbolized as they weave across a dance floor against motionless couples around them…. where a torn letter tossed into the air morphs into a snowstorm and one door opens up into the backdrop of another like a stargate transporting the actors through time and space. Or where an ornate hand fan melts into the sound of thumping horse hoofs. Basically, I was riveted from start to finish. Keira Knightley is the titular character, drawn between her duty to husband and family and the torrid love affair of a handsome cavalry officer (Aaron Taylor Johnson). While this rote compromising of situations is involving, I was much more interested in the secondary story of lovelorn Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander)… a strand of Tolstoy’s novel which is less focused upon. In this updated version, their relationship is extremely subtle and touching, serving as a bitter counterpoint to the obsessive relationship between cousin Anna Karenina and Vronsky. Wright has crafted a kinetic film and one that feels superbly connected to the emotions and longueurs of its source novel while opening up the parameters of its antiquated narrative in progressive, thrilling ways. It’s one of the very best films of the year.

Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly” is probably the best looking, grubby hit-man film in years, but that’s about it. Major props to newcomer cinematographer Greig Fraser whose profile is seemingly about to blossom with this and his work on “Zero Dark Thirty” After high anticipation from his previous film, “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” (which I hold in high esteem as one of the best films of the previous decade), Dominik has abruptly shifted gears both in tone and running time, adapting a George V. Higgins crime novel and setting it squarely in the middle of the 2008 election as both the nation and the crime syndicate are facing unstable futures. After two small time hoods knock over a card game, the organization sends in smooth hit man Brad Pitt to calm the waters. The overall problem with “Killing Them Softly” is the recycled dialogue that dominates most of the film by its ugly, unstable array of underworld characters and, at times, draw the film to a screeching halt. Even James Gandolfini shows up as an out-of-town killer suffering from depression and alcoholism as if he‘s wandered in from the set of The Sopranos. The conversations of fiscal responsibility within the syndicate and endless riffing on sex (not to mention an especially cruel conversation between the film’s only female presence in the form of a hooker) drone on for far too long between characters that are neither self reflexive nor interesting. The final scene, ending in mid-sentence is a pleasantly contrived way to fade to black, but by then its too little too late.

The Loneliest Planet

In “Day Night Day Night”, first time filmmaker Julia Loktev took a rigorous approach to the final hours of a female suicide bomber wandering around New York. Filled with airtight tension and an almost impenetrable over-the-shoulder relentlessness, it was a terrific masterwork by a young artist. Her second film, “The Loneliest Planet” is just as opaque and relentless in its single-minded attention to the journey of not one but two people this time- a couple hiking in the Georgian countryside. Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are the couple… smitten in love and embarking on a harmless adventure that turns out to harbor psychological terrors that will rear its ugly head about halfway through the film. But unlike “Day Night Day Night”, this latest effort (albeit a different animal together) is drained of tension through its artful but strained moments of extreme long takes, wordless stretches and evocative scenery. The point is well taken, but “The Loneliest Planet” feels like a short film pushed to punishing extremes, made all the more uninteresting through two main characters whose travails are given no emotional anchor.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Cinema Obscura: Spotlight On A Murderer

Filmmaker Georges Franju is an interesting case in the French film industry and a genuine paradox. Even though he was making films and short documentaries from 1949 until the mid 70's, he was never readily lumped together with the young nouvelle vague compatriots of the time like Godard, Truffuat and Malle. Although his 1959 film "Eyes Without A Face" is routinely regarded as a classic and poetic art horror film, the remainder of his output is surprisingly muted in conversation. And while Franju's name is often muttered alongside Hitchcock as a true master of cinematic mise-en-scene suspense, his name is rarely brought up in conversations today. And as one of the founding fathers of the Cinematheque Francais in Paris, his legacy should be an enduring one.

Having said all that, it'd be hard to suppose evidence in favor of Franju's cinematic brilliance because (as usual) so much of his work is not available on these shores. But, that has yet to stop me from diving into an artist's canon. "Spotlight On A Murderer" (1961)- the film released shortly after his international and critical success with "Eyes Without A Face"- is a nervy whodunit played out against a spacious castle as members of a family are murdered one by one as they await the outcome of their upcoming inheritance. In the meantime, the family is preparing the castle for its 100 year anniversary, wiring the whole estate with loudspeakers, spotlights and motion detectors which only serve to heighten the already theatrical attitude of the whole film. Filmed and delivered with a cool detachment, "Spotlight On A Murderer" features some truly memorable moments including one scene where the family observe someone going through the motion-sensor rooms while everyone is accounted for and the suicide of one character at such a grand moment as visitors watch and listen to an age old story of murder of suicide. If nothing else, Franju's "Spotlight On A Murderer" is devilishly self effacing.

Starring a very young Jean Louis Trintignant, the film denies the audience any real emotional attachment to any of the characters. In typical French fashion, Trintignant smokes alot of cigarettes, seems unfazed by the symphony of murders and runs to his girlfriend-in-tow at night away from the castle to tell her stories and look cool. Bottom line, "Spotlight On A Murderer" is a technical affair. Franju uses his men and women as tense canon fodder, showing more sensitivity and flair for the technical side of things (audio, camera pans and dreamy dissolves) than anything else. Then again, the family are nothing more than vultures themselves, awaiting an inheritance payoff that is snidely left out of their grasp for five years because the body of their deceased uncle cannot be found- a character whose fate we're in on the joke during the very first scene. Furthermore, each character is defined by a base impulse- Jeanne and her husband Andre are the catalyst for a murder-suicide. Cousin Edwige (Marianne Koch) throws herself at a stableboy and is flatly rejected. Casually reminded of a comedy film years later with the same ideas in "Clue", "Spotlight On A Murderer" is just as caustic a look at human greed without the broad comedy routine. It's just the way I like my atmospheric murder mysteries- clinical, technically polished and with just a hint of moral philosophizing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music on my mind (again)

terrific cover of a terrific song.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Last Few Films I've Seen, November Edition

1. Lincoln (2012)- A law room procedural with a musty made for TV history documentary feel. Daniel Day Lewis is really good, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner seem much more preoccupied with creating grand moments and Oscar bait than a lived-in, intellectual dissection. And it seems to me Lincoln only sulked around and told stories.

2. The Seventh Cross (1944)- A terrific film of two halves. The first part is a tense and dirty road movie in which an escaped Jewish prisoner (Spencer Tracy) desperately tries to seek refuge from his Nazi captors. Once under roof, the film plays out like a film noir as old friends could become betrayers and every shadow looms with danger. Directed by Fred Zinneman, its an unheralded classic.

3. Electric Dragon 8000 Volts (2000)- Whew.... watching a Sogo Ishii film is always an endurance test and this one is no exception. Filled with chaotic images and an aggressive (almost nauseating) soundtrack, two electricity filled men (due to childhood accidents) meet and duel it out for supremacy. Running a scant 50 minutes, the length is perfect for this steam punk effort.

4. The Babymakers (2012)- Partly a Broken Lizard team comedy, I'm beginning to wane on their output. Despite getting to watch a scrumptuos Olivia Munn, there's little else to delight here.

5. 360 (2012)- Fernando Meirelles' modern remake of "La Ronde" deals with so many unbelievable moments of human connection that I began to wonder if the whole thing was a comedy... least of all a beautiful young girl (Maria Flor) being attracted to weirdo Ben Foster in an airport.

6. The Wide Blue Road (1957)- Gillo Pontecorvo clearly understands and loves the working class. This drama follows a young Yves Montand and his lifestyle defying the local Coast Guard in favor of dynamite fishing. Italian neo-realism at its finest, even if the proletariat point of view is a bit much at times.

7. Flight (2012)- It's rereshing that a main character in a Hollywood film is so uncompromisingly addicted and complex, but that's the portrait we get of Denzel Washington's pilot in "Flight". If only the film would have gone to other such uncompromising heights instead of the junkie with a heart of gold and a John Goodman performance that borders on loony tunes.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Cafe de Flore

Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Café de Flore” juggles two seemingly unconnected story lines for a good portion of 90 minutes before allowing their unlikely symmetries to collide in unexpected and moving ways. Beginning in Montreal in the current moment, we meet Antoine (Kevin Parent), a successful DJ and happily living with a beautiful woman and his two young daughters. We’re then introduced to Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) in what we think is 60’s Paris due to the clothes and cars. Immensely loving of her down-syndrome afflicted son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), this thread focuses solely on Jacqueline as she faces more difficult times as Laurent grows up and makes friends with another child in school. Writer-director Vallee spins both of these tales in an increasingly frenetic and symbolic method of cutting, anchoring the action in not only the various manifestations of the title song, but in the terrific music of The Cure, Sigur Ros and Pink Floyd. As “Café de Flore” makes connections between past and present, it threatens to spin out of control, but Vallee and his impressive cast hold things together, splicing images together in unique and portentous ways that add depth and complexity. Without spoiling too much, “Café de Flore” would make for a splendidly low-fi Parisian antidote to “Cloud Atlas”.


 Sam Mendes “Skyfall” is certainly a schizophrenic example of the Bond franchise, and I have mixed emotions about it. First, the good. This is the first Bond film in memory that embraces its classicism and then continually tries to subvert that classicism. The set piece in Shanghai, for example, is probably one of the most thrillingly conceived and flawlessly executed in the franchise’s history… notable not only for Roger Deakins ultra-clean cinematography (just look at the division of colors and layers as his camera floats above the city’s highway and canal system) but in the way he films its ultimate silhouetted fight between Bond (Daniel Craig) and an assassin embraced against neon lit signs and glass doorways in one single, patient zoom. It’s as if Wong Kar Wai was given access for a few minutes. Javier Bardem, as one of the most over-the-top Bond villains ever (?) is given a grand entrance in long take and with a biting monologue in tow. “Skyfall” is also dark… a characteristic that’s been welcome since Craig’s own entrance to the franchise in “Casino Royale”. But while all of this takes on a compellingly modern feel for the 45 year old series, “Skyfall” ultimately is a Bond film, which encompasses the sporadic bedding of every beautiful woman and car chases that end up on the rooftops of train carriages. Ultimately, it’s a film I enjoyed watching but became relatively meaningless the minutes the lights came up, which makes for one of the most frustrating things to write about a film. It’s good, but not great.

The Sessions

Ben Lewin's "The Sessions" takes an extremely uncomfortable subject- man confined to an iron lung- and infuses it with warm humor and strong characterizations. As disabled poet Mark O'Brian, John Hawkes turns in another great performance. Based on a true story, "The Sessions" observes O'Brian as he searches to lose his virginity. Enter a sex therapist (Helen Hunt) who meets with him for 6 sessions, exploring his sexuality and enabling him as a real human being. Touchy as the subject may be, "The Sessions" walks a fine tightrope between intelligent reactions and believable connectability. And while Hawkes and Hunt are the central characters, I was fully blown away by actress Moon Bloodgood as the young assistant to O'Brian. Her performance is tremendous as she tries to stay stoic against a very confusing relationship. The film revels in a few missteps towards the end (it actually feels abrupt when the credits roll) but it's a nice compliment to Hawkes resume and one that will surely garner him an Oscar nomination.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Posters I Love

Over the last few months, I've been bidding (and mosly winning) on original movie posters. I'm running out of wall space. The most recent addition.... original 1978 Italian poster for "The Deer Hunter":

And I just missed out on an original Godard poster from "A Woman Is A Woman". Those French New Wave posters are the most expensive, but god do they look incredible!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

DVD Shout Out- Oslo, August 31

The cinema landscape is full of recovering addict stories- some are languid and woozy (no pun intended) while others focus on the post recovery stages of admittance and penance. In Joachem Trier's "Oslo, August 31", we meet Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) in a depressed state. One of the opening images shows him filling his jacket pockets with rocks and feebly attempting to drown himself. He, and the film, are clearly not in either aforementioned stage of recovery. Anders returns to his rehab house and prepares himself for a day of leave in which he has a job interview set up. From there, the camera dutifully embeds on his shoulders as he visits old friends and haunts, leaves regretful phone messages to an ex-girlfriend and nervously tries to avoid slipping back into his habitual routines.

Joachem Trier's sophomore film is spectacular for the way in which it takes an ordinary subject and weaves a devastating tale. It's also a very personal film. It's not long into the film that Trier adds voice overs of unnamed people recalling the various pleasurable memories of growing up in Oslo, Norway. It feels like an old fashioned novel as memories marry against the image of a bustling but quaint cityscape. And into this city ventures Anders. We desperately pull for Anders to come out unscathed from his inner demons. He's not a bad person.... he's just incredibly confused and damaged. He first meets up with an old friend, now happily married and domesticated with children. They take a walk and the friend senses some inner turmoil in Anders. Anders refuses a beer and we cheer a little. Next, he shows up to his job interview, but self destructs when the managing editor begins to inquire about the few missing years in his portfolio. It's at this point that "Oslo, August 31" turns a bit darker in its voyage with Anders. He shows up a party and makes a move on an old girlfriend. She rebukes him and the heavy drinking starts. He leaves with another old friend to go bar hopping. Here, he connects with a beautiful college student and they all end up, at dawn, skinny dipping in a pool. Anders sits on the edge of the pool, the young girl urging him to come in, that "Oslo, August 31" reaches a fever-pitch of psychological tension. I was basically screaming at the image, imploring Anders to jump into the pool with the girl (Ingrid Olava) and detour his highwire act of sobriety versus addiction. But, writer-director Trier has other elements in mind. Like the melancholy voice overs earlier in the film, happiness is such a fleeting gesture.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hallowscreams part 3

V/H/S- Anthology films are a typically mixed bag, balancing the very good with the very bad. The DIY movement’s edition of this genre, “V/H/S”, suffers from the same fate. First- the really good, including the first and last episodes, which on their own, would make for terrific feature length efforts as they both not only swirl with creatively creepy ideas, but they both seem to have a keen sense of mise-en-scene when it comes to camera placement and light and shadow. The first, called “Amateur Night” and directed by David Bruckner, features three college kids who hook up with the wrong girl at a bar and experience terrifying results, gets the proceedings off with a bang. Some of the images within this segment are truly unnerving, including the POV shot of a woman standing statuesque, covered in blood in the center of a dimly lit motel room. The final episode, directed by a collage named Radio Silence, tells the story of a group of guys who show up to a Halloween party only to find the house deserted and an occult ceremony going up upstairs. The sheer momentum of this episode, including demon-like arms reaching out of the walls, reveals a huge appreciation for the less-is-more horror maxim and positions the directorial team as an unusually creative bunch. The remainder of the episodes vary from mildly annoying (a skype episode where paranormal stuff happens every night) to the downright boring (Ti West’s travelogue that turns torturous for senseless reasons). The overall affect of “V/H/S” is also greatly diminished by its found footage style of filmmaking… which nowadays seems to imply not an actual technique, but a disguise for cheap budgets and complete lack of artistic direction. Regardless, “V/H/S” did manage to give me some unsettling moments, alone, later in the dark… and that speaks for something.

Fascination- No Halloween viewing would be complete without a Jean Rollin film, and his 1979 film “Fascination” is yet another enthralling, lurid and surreal exploit. Either one has the temperament for Rollin films or not. And in “Fascination”, he continues to disturb without a hint of special effect or bloody fang. The story, which deals with a robber hiding out in a large castle with two seductive women, succeeds through carefully modulated camera placement and a heightened sense of light and shadow. Just watch how he frames an exterior view of the castle, with the warm glowing interior light making a specter like shadow on the water below, or the insidious way he frames lips and eyes. It’s all a gothic, slow-burn treat. Something of a story does begin to take place as the two women (Franca Mai and Brigitte Lahaie) seduce, taunt and mentally toy with the criminal-on-the-lam while hinting at the arrival of devious friends later on in the night. And their arrival, filmed in dreadful long shot, is another bewitching treat. “Fascination” won’t scare you outright, but its lingering sense of madness and erotic subjugation will haunt.

El Vampiro- Fernando Mendez’s “El Vampiro” is an interesting, if not rudimentary, entry in the Dracula franchise a few years before Hammer films jumped into the fray revitalizing the classics. Filmed and released in the mid 50’s by the CasaNegra film company (which boats an impressive slate of horror titles in which “El Vampiro” is the first), the film maintains a strong visual atmosphere while transposing the Dracula story to a small village hacienda in Mexico. Arriving home after many years due to the death of her aunt, Marta (Ariadna Welter), soon becomes the target of dark-eyed Count Duval (German Robles). A lot of the film’s running time is spent explaining the vagaries of the vampire legend (its various rules and by-laws being the use of mirrors, crosses and a stake through the heart), yet “El Vampiro” also does a terrific job of visually instilling dread and horror. Long shot and close-up are used effectively and the spare black and white images of a lonely hacienda and the cob-webbed underground tunnels where the count and his clan carry out their nasty business are genre foundations done right. Released on Spanish region 2 DVD discs, I’m looking forward to exploring more of CasaNegra and their old fashioned stories.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The LIE test

My good online compadre at Lerner International Blog posted a quiz and requested that answers be put into our own blogs, so without further adieu:

1.) Favorite Warren Oates perf that’s not in a Peckinpah or Monte Hellman movie?

Bouncing off Dennis Hopper in the wonderfully under seen “Kid Blue” (1973)

2.) Favorite Spaghetti Western not directed by Sergio Leone?

“Cemetary Without Crosses” (1972)

3.) Favorite John Ford film that’s not a Western or set in Ireland?

I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a Ford non-Western or Irish saga.

4.) Fave Zapata Western not Duck You Sucker!?

“The Professionals” (1966)

5.) Favorite Clint Eastwood-directed film that’s not Unforgiven or Play Misty for Me?

“Mystic River” (2003) because it tracks into some deep emotional territory without becoming maudlin

6.) Favorite Don Siegel film that’s not Charley Varrick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Dirty Harry?

Gotta be The Black Windmill  (1974). So many Michael Caine movies not on DVD it’s a shame, and this one is a bit weird, but still holds fast to the grimy, Euro-set crime films of the 70’s I love so much

7.) Fave Ken Russell film that’s not The Devils, Tommy or Altered States?

“Billion Dollar Brain”!

8.) Fave WWII gore/intensity/nastiness, that’s not Saving Private Ryan or Come and See?

I don’t think any film about World War 2 could be as clinically disturbing as “Sorrow and the Pity”, “Shoah” or “Hotel Terminus”. I’d even add the terrific “The Rape of Europa”. Fiction is fine, but these documentaries present the inhumanity in such startling, ordinary terms that the far reaching effects of the war seem unfathomable.

9.) Fave “Savage Cinema” that’s not the original Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left?

I’ll go with “Last House on Dead End Street” (1973) …. A truly dirty, unnerving film. For a great read on it, check out the book “Sleazoid Express”

10.) Fave conspiracy film that’s not Oliver Stone’s JFK or Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View?

How about Pakula’s “Three Days of the Condor”? (1977) The guy was so great at creating tension out of basically nothing.

11.) Fave Left-Wing director that is not Michael Moore, Costa-Gavras or Oliver Stone (not that I consider Stone genuinely left-wing; I think he’s more of a sleeper-agent selling discount rebellion to moviegoers)?

I’m not a huge fan of his films, but Rod Lurie is out there on the left wing quite a bit….

12.) Favorite screenwriter not William Goldman, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, Ernest Lehman, Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino?

Damm, with Towne off the list, umm, David Mamet.

13.) Favorite alien not designed (or based on a design) by HR Giger, or that is the extraterrestrial from John Carpenter’s The Thing?

I’m woefully in the dark on this one so I’ll guess any alien from those 50’s, Then again, I was always partial to the minimalist creature like the green fog in “Planet of the Vampires” (1965)

14.) Favorite Biker Movie that is not Easy Rider, The Wild One or The Wild Angels?

“The Loveless” (1983) from everyone’s favorite biker-director Kathryn Bigelow

15.) Favorite robot not from Forbidden Planet or the Star Wars movies?

Johnny Number 5 in “Short Circuit”!

16.) Fave “one-shot wonder” (solo directing credit) that’s not The Night of the Hunter?

Did anyone see or even remember Christopher Macquarie’s “The Way of the Gun”? A group of buddies and I saw it on opening night and just fell in love with the thing. Still do love it…. Although I see McQuarrie has directed two movies now with “Jack Reacher”. out later this year. Disqualified. I’ll go with Alan Rickman’s “The Winter Guest” (1997), a film no one but me seems to love.

17.) Fave car chase not in a Philip D'Antoni film (and not everybody chose 1971’s Vanishing Point, please!)

I could say “The French Connection” which is too easy…. How about “Ronin” (a little love for Frankenheimer) or especially another Roy Scheider film, “The Seven Ups”, whose car chase comes out of nowhere and really kicks ass.

18.) Fave religious film not based on a characters or a story in The Bible?

Edward Norton’s “Keeping the Faith”. Such a sweet, innocent film that is quite funny, tackles some questions about faith and features three great performances by Norton, Jenna Elfman and Stiller.

19.) Fave Disaster Movie that’s not The Poseidon Adventure?

“Contagion” (2011). This shit could really happen and Soderbergh traces a terrifying map of it.

20.) Favorite Spielberg film to hate that’s not Hook?

Hated, hated “Beloved” and even “Amistad”…. such earnest films whose points are thrown in our faces

21.) Favorite Giant Monster that’s not Godzilla or the 1933 King Kong? Without a doubt, Joon-ho Bong’s “The Host”. That first emergence of the creature along the canal… stunning set piece!

Bonus questions: 1) English-language movie that blows your mind, that no one knows about, that’s hard to see, that you want to get on a rooftop and shout about:

Anyone who knows me knows one of my top five fave movies of all time is “Laws of Gravity” (1992) by Nick Gomez. Came and went in early 90’s…. had a few supporters like Gavin Smith in Film Comment, was on VHS (never on DVD) and has now disappeared. Features a magnetic performance by the great Peter Greene, Edie Falco, Adam Trese and Paul Schulze about a New York neighborhood and the small-time crime the guys get into. It also features one of the most devastating endings ever….

2) Foreign-language movie that blows your mind, that no one knows about, that’s hard to see, that you want to get on a rooftop and shout about:

Any Edward Yang film, but especially That Day, On the Beach.

3) Fave “personal apocalypse” ending to a film, with the protagonist shattered, staring ahead dead-eyed: Catherine Denevue in “Hustle” by Aldrich, the aforementioned Peter Greene in “Laws of Gravity”, John Travolta in “Blow Out”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hallowscreams part 2

Blacker Than the Night- Carlos Enrique Taboada’s “Blacker Than the Night” tells the story of four beautiful young women and their experiences in a large inherited mansion. Ophelia (Claudia Islas) inherits the large house from her dead aunt and promptly movers herself and her three friends into the house. The only stipulation- they must care for the aunt’s cherished cat. We all know how that goes and once the hapless girls allow the cat to die, aunt Susana is none too happy. Released in 1975, “Blacker Than the Night” relies on old fashioned scares, and those looking for gore or violence will be sorely disappointed. But I found a great charm with the film’s pace and reliance on light and shadow to shock. Also, Taboada continually stresses the huge divide between past and modern- the girls continually call the house “full of junk” and the film’s first real jolt comes not in the antiquated house, but a modern library with a very minimalist feel. Taboadad, who contributed a large number of films to Mexican cinema in the 60’s and 70’s often worked with low budgets, maneuvering through his lack of finance with camera placement and atmosphere. Based on “Blacker Than the Night”, I look forward to his other films.

Sinister- I really, really wanted to love Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister”. The idea of a demon spirit existing in the images of 16MM home movie footage is just splendidly eerie…. And very meta cinema (which the next film in this post executes likes aces). For a majority of “Sinister”, it does hit the right notes in establishing Ethan Hawke as a questionable lead character and namely his Jack Nicholson-like “The Shining” slips of reality, but the film, ultimately, winds up as a victim of its own marketing strategy. In trying to sell the film, “Sinister’s” finest moments are telegraphed in the trailer. As the film winded down, I found myself figuring out the plot relatively quickly and my mind wandering. I do give props to the sound editing team, whose choice of musical edits and sound design render some truly unnerving moments during the “snuff” movie excerpts.

Videodrome- I don’t know if one could technically classify David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” as horror, but for my money, it’s the most terrifying film on this list. Released in 1983, the film is a virtuoso distillation of so many Cronenberg ideas he would later develop, articulate and re visit in subsequent films- especially “eXistenZ”. As a small-time television channel owner and programmer, James Woods discovers a pirated TV signal that appears to be a snuff film. Once he watches it, his grip on reality- and his relationship to those around him- slowly succumbs to hallucinations and violent episodes that borders on brainwashing. There are so many iconic images in “Videodrome”- the hand slowly pushing out of a TV set…. Woods pushing a gun inside a vaginal-like wound that opens on his stomach….and a breathing videocassette tape. Just a great film that pulses with terrific ideas on the psychological decay of humankind.

Friday, October 19, 2012

70's Bonanza: Freelance

Hustlers in the movies always have such an exhausting effect on me. Whether it's Jason Miller in the hugely underrated "The Nickel Ride" or more well known con men like Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy", I always wonder just where they find the energy and veracity to shake and move 24 hours a day when steady income could be had with a 9 to 5 job. But I digress. Francis Megahy's "Freelance" documents the troubles of yet another hustler, this time portrayed by the charismatic Ian McShane. Coming to real success only in the last decade or so due to his tremendous performance as Swearingen on HBO's "Deadwood" series, I've seen McShane in a number of his early roles and he certainly holds his own as a handsome and often tragic supporting player. With "Freelance", McShane is thrust center stage as the wheeling and dealing Brit who happens to witness a murder by the underworld and then tries to carry on his various deals while avoiding the same hit man. Of course, this complicates his live in romance with model Gayle Hunnicutt and her plans to settle down into a normal life.

"Freelance", eventually released on VHS in the United Sates in the early 90's as "Con Man", is certainly a product of its time... which means lots of Swingin' London (including a threesome between McShane, his best buddy and a waitress they pick up) and a pretty terrible folk song that lingers over the opening and closing moments. Yet, as one of those grubby early 70's revenge flicks like "Sitting Target" (in which McShane co-stars) or "Get Carter", "Freelance" more than holds its own as a minor crime film in which most of the film's pleasure is watching McShane sweat and escape from the relentless hit man trying to wipe him out. Directed by Francis Megahy (who really did nothing else of note), "Freelance" occasionally pops up on cable television. And it does feature one of the more impressive ways to break into a window that I've ever seen on film.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hallow-screams part 1

Enter the Devil- Aka “Disciples of Death”, “Enter the Devil” is a unique horror/western filmed in the Texas/New Mexico foothills. Barely released in 1972 and relegated to the drive-in circuit, “Enter the Devil” wears its shaggy, amateurish label on its sleeve proudly. Content to break some rules of narrative film making (such as the shifting idea of who exactly will be the hero/protagonist in the story), the film tells of a professor (Irene Kelly) and the local deputy sheriff who hole up in a desert inn and try to track down the source of a string of disappearances. Little do they know, an ancient Satanic cult is using the dilapidated mines nearby for their ritualistic sacrifices. Virtually devoid of scares, “Enter the Devil” is a minor footnote in Texas film making, largely thanks to the contribution of director Frank Q. Dobbs who would go onto a major career in television through mini-series such as “Streets of Laredo” and “Johnson County War”. Of little note- apparently this film has had no official home video release in the United States. The copy I managed to track own was taken from a Dutch VHS source. It was quite fun to see Texas slang translated into that language!

Penumbra- Director Adrian Bogliano received strong word of mouth here in Austin earlier this month at Fantastic Fest with his film “Here Comes the Devil”. “Penumbra”, released last year, also shows strong promise as a horror filmmaker. While initially taking its time to set up the gory final act, parts of “Penumbra” do play out like bad Mexican daytime television. Marga (Cristina Brondo) is trying to sell a loft apartment of hers and meets the prospective buyer there. Slowly, more and more of his friends show up at the apartment with devious things on their mind. Confounding the eerie presence of these visitors is the speculation of a total solar eclipse. As Marga, Brondo establishes an insufferable bitch… one that at times we root against as she gets into scrapes with homeless people and spends the first 45 minutes on her cellphone berating co-workers and decrying the fact she to spend time in a shitty place like Buenos Aries. But when the scenario turns bloody and terrifying, writer/director Bogliano manages to incur some sympathy for her only because the unwarranted visitors maintain a nasty agenda. As a midnight cult film, “Penumbra” more than stands the test.

The Moth Diaries- Ahh, the all girl school is just ripe material for psychological tales of mixed up sexuality and emotional confrontations. Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" is probably the most harrowing (and just plain creepy) version of this story in the past few years, but Mary Harron's "The Moth Diaries" does a decent job of establishing atmosphere and tension. Playing out in delicate tones like one of the late 19th century gothic novels the girls are studying in school, Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) comes to believe the new girl (Lily Cole) is a vampire as she mentally seduces and disposes of her friends one by one. Some characteristics of the film feel hackneyed- including a relationship with a teacher played by Scott Speedman and the overall fairy tale like environment- but "The Moth Diaries" ultimately goes to some complex places that, typically, delineates the emotional vagaries of young Rebecca. Don't think its "Carrie".... more of a quiet, whispy film.
Nightwish- And finally, because it seems to be hard to find pics or even video clips of this 1989 oddity online, I've included one of my favorite scary moment images- the subliminal devil cuts in "The Exorcist"... that oft imitated flash of something sinister that works in just the right places. Regardless, "Nightwish" is silly stuff (and available streaming on Netflix!). In one early scene, the (mad) scientist tells his students to "relax yourselves and welcome the unexpected". The unexpected is what one gets with "Nightwish", a horror sci-fi weirdo cheeze effort that throws everything and the kitchen sink at the viewer. From talk of aliens, to cannibals and since we're firmly in the 80's... ectoplasm, writer-director Bruce Cook sprays every horror convention for good measure. Four graduate students travel to a supposed haunted house where they carry out experiments and come face to face with their personal terrors. Logical sense, and to some extent good film making, are nonexistent, but completest fans of horror films.... or just oddball 80's cinema lovers... shouldn't miss "Nightwish".

Part 2 soon.....

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Looper

It's been a good couple weeks at the movies. After the cinematic lightning bolt that was "The Master", Rian Johnson's wholly original and compelling sci-fi/western hybrid "Looper" made a remarkable impression on me. While initially unmoved by Johnson's debut film, "Brick", I became a strong convert a few years ago after his sophomore film, "The Brothers Bloom", ranked high as one of the best films of its respective year for me. Each successive effort has seen Johnson grow stronger and more secure as a filmmaker. If "Brick" was a modern film noir diluted through the emo tendencies of teenagers and "The Brothers Bloom" was a 1930's caper film, highlighted by bubblegum aesthetics and an almost child-like attention to puppy love, "Looper" is darker, easily borrowing from both the sci-fi dystopia genre and western. And it has alot on its mind, eventually turning into a dynamic examination of violence, revenge and that sticky scenario known as time travel.

Much has been made of the (at times) distracting make-up work by young Joseph Gordon Levitt to look like his older self, Bruce Willis, and the subpar special effects, yet part of me feels that based on Johnson's previous affectations for older genres, this is an intentional thing. Going into "Looper", I expected a slick genre exercise and came out with a completely different outlook. About halfway through "Looper", perspectives and character shift and the stakes get unbearably high, anchored by strong performances from Levitt, Willis and Emily Blunt as the violence focuses away from the sci-fi universe carefully established by Johnson in the first half of the film. Basically, things get personal on many levels and the ramifications of the violence extends light years. One of my favorites of the year.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Top 5 List- Best Female Faces post 2000

5. Leslie Mann- Despite the fact actress Leslie Mann is married to Judd Apatow, giving her an exemption in pretty much all of his comedic efforts, I get the sense Mann could hold her own in the Hollywood universe. After years of bit roles in 90's Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey comedies, it was Mann's scene stealing performance as a drunk woman giving Steve Carrel a ride home in "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and subsequent starring role in "Knocked Up" that cemented her place in stardom. Yes, a majority of her roles have been comedic ones- and ones that she routinely knocks out of the park through her wry delivery and razor sharp reaction shots- but Mann has shown uncommon depth as an actress as well. Just watch the scene as she's shut out of a popular night club and the ramblings of a thirty-something come streaming out of her in "Knocked Up" And it's an understatement to say I'm excited for "This Is 40" when it hits theaters later this year. Mann co-starring, front and center, with Paul Rudd... taking a supporting role and spinning it into a lead role is a definite recipe for cult success.

4. Carice Van Houten- I suppose its downright flattery for an actress to become so encumbered in a role that one doesn't even recognize her... and that was the case with me and "Game of Thrones". Until recently, I had no idea she played the fiery goddess Melissandre in that series. Regardless, van Houten has an angelic face that would look at home in a silent film from the 20's. Just imagine her in a Murnau film! In 2006, van Houten's smash success came in Paul Verhoeven's brutal Resistance drama, "Black Book". At the time, I wrote the following of van Houten: even after being covered by a vat of human shit, stripped naked several times and one scene of pubic hair dying, actress Carice Van Houten manages to pull out of Paul Verhoeven's World War 2 thriller Black Book with finesse and grace. Not only does she carry herself like a true classic screen actress, but Houten has the emotional temperance to make her role as a German double agent highly accessible and believable.

3. Keira Knightley- A lot of pot shots have been hurled at British actress Knightley over the years... and admittedly, it's really hard when the term "beanpole" is one of the first adjectives awarded to you (courtesy of Aint It Cool News back in the day). By now, I would hope Knightley has shed the laments and proven she's more than a pretty statue. Probably the closest thing to a bonafide superstar on this list, Knightley continues to accept a wide variety of projects. Loyal readers may remember I flipped for her in this year's "Seeking A Friend For the End of the World"- a film that deserved so much better- and next we have a lushly mounted adaptation of "Anna Karenina" later this year. The intensity and sincerity she approaches each role is astounding. And my god just look at those eyes....

2. Emily Blunt- The photo here isn't the best, but I just love the contrast. From her young performance as a confused teenager in the excellent "My Summer of Love" (2004), I recognized something unique in her. Since then, she's surprised me with every new role. Her latest, in Rian Johnson's brilliant "Looper" sets a new standard for her as she slowly becomes the focus of the film and single-handedly takes control of it's swirling sci-fi universe. Blunt is on an exciting precipice, mounted to become the next big thing and dazzle us for years to come.
1. Vera Farmiga- I couldn't resist using at least one scandalous photo! Farmiga- chiseled face and intense eyes- is the total package. Intelligent, fierce and beautiful, Farmiga has already exceeded her actress expectations and turned in one terrific directorial effort as well, the under appreciated "Higher Ground" (2011). This double threat of a performer seems to own every scene. From the minute she walks into Scorsese's "The Departed", things get serious. Farmiga, like Blunt, is an untapped resource that will hopefully provide years of creativeenergies.

Friday, September 28, 2012

On "The Master"

Writer-director Paul Thoms Anderson has made the father-son relationship complex a recurring theme in many of his films, whether subjugated within his multi-storyline narrative ("Magnolia") or tangentially within genre ("Hard Eight", "Boogie Nights"), but his latest film, "The Master" may be his most pointed and raw effort yet. From the first time stunted, angry seaman Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and learned doctor Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) meet, the overtures of the father-son relationship are overt and tense in the way Dodd says "alright..." in that fatherly tone of a man siting behind a large desk, patiently accepting his sulking son's presence either good or bad. And from there, "The Master" gels into a sublime series of scenes where father and prodigal son connect, disconnect, argue, love and work through repressed emotions caused by post-war stress. For those that have called "The Master" pointless, I humbly disagree. Not only is it probably one of the most touching examinations of the push-and-pull that separates and joins people, but it reigns as a subtle miracle of the three act structure, revealing everything in small glances and a technical cinematic prowess that feels unmatched in current cinema.

First and foremost, "The Master" is an actor's film.... positioning Hoffman and Phoenix in a verbal spar of words, emotions, shot and counter-shot reactions and pregnant pauses. Director Anderson, always looking for the opportunity to swivel and swing the camera, remains mostly passive here (save for a few delicate tracking shots and one breathlessly wonderful tracking shot across a foggy field), relying on the terrific performances and the face of Phoenix to relay the energy. Still, incredible tension is built up in every scene. This is partly what gives "The Master" its unexpected power.... the feeling that every scene is about to spin out of control into some groundbreaking moment, but remains faithful to the catharsis that Quell and Dodd provide each other and others. There's always one or two trademark P.T. Anderson set pieces in each of his films, and in "The Master" there's several of them- the initial "processing" scene, a jailhouse confrontation and especially the final conversation between Quell and Dodd.... a scene that imposes just as much quiet devastation as the "milkshake" scene in "There Will Be Blood" is violent. But, compared to that film, "The Master" is about inward restlessness and the search for happiness, whether that be through inner peace or the settling down of a family. "The Master" is bookmarked by scenes of Quell searching for something, haunted by past memories that seem to defy psychoanalysis or self-help. For P.T. Anderson, cinema is his analysis and with "The Master", he's ascended into magnificent stratospheres.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Last Few Films I've Seen, September Edition

A combination of big screen, small screen and boob tube viewing over the past couple of weeks:

1. Nazi Love Camp 27 (1977)- Released as a titillating grindhouse flick in the early 70's, I can usually roll or have fun with Nazisploitation efforts, but this one is a tepid experience. Inter cutting full penetration, lesbianism, sadism and really bad acting (plus a story about human genetics engineering a baby for Hitler), the film probably should stay unreleased in the U.S. A bootleg classic now though.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)- Almodovar just never really connects with me, finally catching up with his praised film from last year. The way he mixes up Spanish melodrama, queer cinema and basic thriller tenants is all very well done, but I just didn't care for anyone in this film.

3. Premium Rush (2012)- Yes, this is probably the first terrible Michael Shannon performance of his career, but I'll be damned if David Koepp's fast paced, straightforward actioner isn't involving and downright fun even if we know how everything works out. Gordon-Levitt is terrific again, ex-Sopranos actress Dania Ramirez (Blanca) breathes great energy into her supporting role and I was pulling for everyone to end up ok.

4. Kill List (2012)- Ben Wheatley's cocktail mix of a film tries its hand at three different genres, each one more terrifying and disturbing than the next, and establishes him as a great talent to watch. The less one knows about this film, the better. One of the year's best films.

5. The Wall (1983) Turkish director Yilmaz Guney's final film, and certainly an angry one in his long line of autobiographical films about his country and the political/civilian unrest. If one hasn't seen "Yol", I urge them to track down a copy if possible. I have 4 more hard to find Gilmay films lined up to watch in the coming months, and I look forward to exploring his stuff. This one, about life inside a sprawling prison inhabited by children, women and men segregated from each other, is uncompromising and surprising in the way gentleness and violence exists in the same very small space.

6. Snowtown (2011)- Right from the start, I felt imprisoned and claustrophobic from this film- about an Australian serial killer- that never waned. There's nothing inherently wrong with "Snowtown"... in fact it's scenes of violence and murder are quite harrowing in the way they unflinchingly present their crimes and all involved give realized performances. I just felt like I've seen this whole thing before, right down to the washed out 70's cinematography.

7. Lovely Molly (2012)- Film Comment editor Gavin Smith and I usually agree on our horror film vices (we both seem to be the only people who really, really loved "Insidious"), but here we differ. Sorry Gavin. Eduardo Sanchez ("Blair Witch Project") returns to the genre with a shallow exploration of insanity and atmospheric chiller. When a woman moves back into her childhood home, her mental state blurs between reality and fiction. Low-fi horror it is, but the film relies on video camcorder footage just a bit much.

8. Fanny and Alexander (1983)- The 5 hour television cut, something close to a masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman. My God, the colors and interiors of this film are mesmerizing. The story, which takes its time weaving a tale about one family's ups and downs during the early 1900's is a knockout of narrative, infusing character and grace into every member of the family. While eventually settling on the young children and their hardships after their father's death, Bergman never loses his way in a mammoth event that ranks up there with the best of them.

9. Too Big To Fail (2011)- There's one scene in Curtis Hanson's razor sharp exploration of the 2008 financial crisis that explains the mortgage company meltdown better than anything I've seen or read in the last three years. Probably liberaled up and Hollywood-ized, of course, the HBO tv event is still a terrific and clear eyed expose.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Jean Pierre Melville Files: Army of Shadows

Originally released in 1969, Jean Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" really didn't come into acclaim until 2006 when Rialto pictures re-distributed it, crafting an arthouse success out of a sort-of long lost classic. Made in between Melville's string of hard nosed, French revisionist black and white noirs, perhaps "Army of Shadows" was doomed to a quiet existence because it didn't fit squarely into the great director's expected cinema lineage. Regardless of the reasons, Rialto's diligence and foresight in re-positioning "Army of Shadows" as the one Melville you had to see is a minor stroke of genius. It is a masterpiece, in every way.

Adapted from the memoirs of French Resistance fighter Joseph Kessel, "Army of Shadows" is a patient, brooding examination of the interior workings of one French Resistance cell. Based on actual people, I'm tempted to call "Army of Shadows" the best film about the Resistance, even though it comes relatively late in this spirited genre of films. Where a majority of the Resistance films deal with a certain person or action against the deadly German war machine, "Army of Shadows" shows us both the anxious and the mundane with events as diverse as the smuggling of a transmitter through a heavily guarded train station and a night time escort onto a submarine. The results- a free France- are the same, yet Melville gives both events the same heightened tension even though the submarine landing yields far less devastating consequences as the only threat present is an old French policeman, both related to the person running the Resistance mission and stating he's the only customs officer watching the entire beach for the Germans. Shifting through a series of near misses, captures, imprisonments, escapes, and cafe conversations, "Army of Shadows" reveals an entire universe of Resistance fighters and the fragile line between freedom and torture with pristine vision. Lino Ventura, as the "star" in the film in the loosest sense, plays Philippe Verbier, a man running the cell with clarity of purpose... stone faced and confident even when mounted against the fate of death by firing squad. Though so many Ventura films are unavailable on DVD and this praise is probably limited, but I think this is his best performance.

Also present in "Army of Shadows" (and most Resistance films) is the parlor of doom. Granted, Melville drapes a majority of his films in this, yet the tone is set from the opening scene as German soldiers march towards the camera next to the Arch de Triomph and central characters are picked up, tortured and executed with little warning. The film's central colors- drab blacks, deep browns and winter-time gray skies- also denote the seemingly insurmountable task the French Resistance fighters have against the German Army. But it's the procedural nature of the film and Melville's insistence on transferring a quiet thriller over the historical context that makes "Army of Shadows" such a breathless exercise. In the face of defeat, what shines through most deeply in Melville's film is determined resolve of human nature to fight for what belongs to us. Whether that's a smuggled transistor radio to hear BBC broadcasts or arranging for the violent escape of a fellow prisoner, "Army of Shadows" gives hefty weight and reverent reflection to both.

"Army of Shadows" is the first film in a series of posts looking at films that deal with the Resistance during World War 2.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Friday, September 07, 2012

New Week's Offerings

A Burning Hot Summer

Philippe Garrel’s “A Burning Hot Summer” could be interpreted as yet another tangentially self biographical tale of tortured young love, but its more hopeful and engaging than many of his previous examinations. Yes there are bouts of suicide and depression, affairs and charged fights, but “A Burning Hot Summer” at least allows the escape of one young couple into much happier times. Frederic (Louis Garrel) is a painter married to successful actress Angele (the beautiful Monica Bellucci) when he meets Paul (Jerome Rabart). Paul eventually falls in love with Elisabeth (Celine Sallette). Frederic invites Paul and Elisabeth to live with them in Rome while Angele works on a movie. Their initial idyllic setting gives way to jealousy and boredom. The more disastrous of the pair is Garrel and Bellucci, constantly unhappy and seeking other partners. While director Garrel focuses most of the pain and anguish on these two, he allows a natural, almost sweet relationship to form between Paul and Elisabeth. If one couple is the ‘amour fou’ Garrel loves to examine, the other is the exact opposite. Filtered through this tale are many of Garrel’s tropes, including a meta-movie overlay as Angele works on a movie (with her new lover no doubt) and one long, unbroken scene as Bellucci dances at a house party. I’m a sucker for such an innocuous moment and it works to dizzying perfection here. “A Burning Hot Summer” deals in mood and surface emotions. At times, it’s difficult to take the film’s pensive and overdone scenario to heart (including a foreshadowing opening scene that drains some of the tension), but when the final scene does occur, I was surprisingly moved.


Based on an acclaimed novel by Don DeLillo (which has its vitriolic fans apparently), David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” is a hermetic, ice cold blooded experiment. In the past, this probably would’ve been a good thing based on the director‘s need to sublimate precision over emotion, but “Cosmopolis” comes off as a crushing bore. Full of long winded, absurd speeches about global capitalism, dwindling fortunes and warped asides about human nature (and an asymmetrical prostate), “Cosmopolis” is essentially a dark parable that appeals to all the people searching for an assault on the ‘one percenters’. Starring Robert Pattinson as some sort of capital mogul, “Cosmopolis” is mostly confined to the back of his stretched limo as he descends across downtown Manhattan while his fortune crumbles on a risky market bet. Cameos by Samantha Morton, Mathieu Almaric, Jay Burachel and Paul Giamatti serve to liven up the deadening tone as best their monotonous conversations can, but the imprisoned backseat and clinical discussions of currency and non sequitors made me nauseous. And when Pattinson steps out into the real world, things get even weirder. A conversation with an old barber…. An explicable murder by a basketball court…. And Pattinson’s uneasy relationship with newlywed wife (Sarah Gadan) all emphasize the cyborgian nature of every character. I’m sure there’s some scathing points in DeLillo’s novel (adapted directly by Cronenberg) but as a film, “Cosmopolis” failed to stimulate me intellectually…. And for Cronenberg that’s a major disappointment.


John Hillcoat makes some violent movies. They feel violent… full of droning soundtrack noises that heighten the tension and an unflinching camera that patiently observes killings and neck snappings and blood and dirt. “Lawless” (his most Hollywood film to date) doesn’t shirk from the violence, creating a highly stylized universe where tommy guns are loud, a hotel room covered in blood is truly traumatic and the big final showdown between two men is draped in shadows. Technically, “Lawless” is peerless. It’s when the characters within his story try to express emotion, vengeance or lust that the story comes to a screeching halt. Following the moonshine exploits of a backwoods Virginia family of Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke and Shia LeBouf, their peaceful criminal dealings come against Chicago special attorney Guy Pearce when he tries to make his mark on the profitable trade. Pearce (a mainstay of Hillcoat) as always, chews the scene with relish, creating a character we all wish was dead. But it’s the clumsy performance of LeBouf and forced love entanglements with female stars Jessica Chastain and Mia Wiskowski that dampen the film’s energy.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Cinema Obscura: Anima Persa

"Anima Persa" (translated as "Lost Souls") is a completely weird effort. With acting pedigree as sublime as Catherine Deneuvue and Vittoria Gassman and shades of the giallo genre played out amongst the indelible images of a sprawling Venetian mansion, its a shame that "Anima Persa" isn't quite as good as it means to be.

Released in 1977 by the obviously prolific Dino Risi, "Anima Persa" deals with the arrival of a young student Tino (Danilo Mattei) in Venice to study painting. He moves in with his aunt (Deneuvue) and uncle (Gassman) and is quickly apprised that the old mansion holds secrets.... namely the confinement of another crazy uncle upstairs. Tino is forced into the psychological game between aunt and uncle. He is misogynistic, continually blaming Deneuevue for being "a stupid woman", unable to appreciate the finer things in life like his cherished opera records. She tells Tino about her daughter, supposedly murdered by the insane, pedophile uncle upstairs. Unable to believe or decipher the hatred between them, Tino goes on his own quest to uncover his family's secret past.

A better title would have been "Imprisoned Souls". Owing some rudimentary elements to the giallo genre, "Anima Persa" is far too tame in its suspense to qualify. Taking as its setting only two or three different locations- and a few exterior shots of the lovely Venice canal ways- "Anima Persa" instead chooses to act out a family psychological horror that often borders on extreme parody. Tino's love interest, Lucia (Anicee Alvina) meets him in art class (which looks like a holdover hippie protest) where she blithely strips nude for the class to sketch. Deneuvue, in one of her more strange, emotionless performances, rarely gets out of her pajamas and night gown and Gassman, as the controlling Uncle Stolz, is given a quick gambling habit towards the end of the film that neither explains him or the strange conclusion. A bit of Hitchcock and Argento thrown in for good measure don't tidy up the quite boring mess of Rosi's film. Perhaps my high expectations of an unheralded giallo gem soured my experience, but "Anima Persa" probably belongs as a true cinema obscura for good reasons.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

70's Bonanza: Sky Riders

Terrorism. Susannah York kidnapped. James Coburn. Hang gliding. Need I say more for pure, unadulterated 1970's bliss? In all seriousness, Douglas Hickox's "Sky Riders" (aka "Assault On the Hidden Fortress", which is a pretty kick ass name in and of itself) is great fun... an actioner that never takes itself too seriously and dispenses with deep characterizations and motives and focuses on it's loopy, Saturday afternoon serial style.

On a quiet morning, American diplomat Robert Culp leaves his wife (York) and two children at home. Soon after, a group of hockey masked terrorists break into the guarded compound and kidnap the family, whisking them away high atop a mountain in Greece. Ex husband James Coburn becomes involved with the rescue process and tracks the kidnappers to their abandoned monastery in the mountain, eliciting the help of a group of professional hang gliders in attacking the compound. Forget that Coburn only needs a day or two to learn hang gliding and that the assault involves daringly guiding oneself through impending, jagged mountain cliffs. This is James Coburn, and he does it all with flair.

Directed by Douglas Hickox, "Sky Riders" best asset, besides the wide grin that Coburn flashes every few minutes or Susannah York's (again) bra-less performance, is the majestic Greek landscape anchoring the narrative. The point of view shots as the hang gliders are in flight, or the terrific night-time raid set piece towards the final half of the film are outstanding examples of mise-en-scene. Hickox, a director best known for "Zulu Dawn" or my personal favorite piece of 70's nihilism "Sitting Target", probably should have gotten more chances at directing large action films instead of the TV series work he was relegated to later in his career. The final shoot-out between the terrorists, the police and Coburn's crew igniting mayhem in the skies turns into a "Wild Bunch" scenario of machine guns, grenades and falling bodies. Even if one doesn't buy the exagerrated scenario, "Sky Riders" wins you over through sheer gusto.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Produced and Abandond #14

Ten more titles deserving a R1 DVD release:

1. M (1951)- Joseph Losey's remake of the Fritz Lang classic is available on a Blu-Ray Import from Spain, but no where to be found on these shores. TCM does have it in the rotation, and with a West Coast Losey retrospective upcoming, maybe this one will finally get a relese.

2. Black Cat, White Cat (1999)- Available on the old (and great) New Yorker VHS, Emir Kusturica's Serbian tale was part of the IFC channel's rotation back in the day, but long gone since. It's a bit sad that Kusturica has fallen off the cinematic map- although IMDB does show a couple of works in production- and his 90's run with lengthy, crazy masterpieces such as "Underground" and "Arizona Dream" were impressive.

3. The Goddess (1960)- Really more of an impassioned plea for more... any... Satyajit Ray on DVD. The synopsis, about a young woman's imposed marriage and the destruction it causes in her household, sounds immersive. One major blind spot in my cinematic viewing is Ray.

4. Before the Revolution (1964)- Another terrific film, once available on New Yorker, that served as one of my very first introductions to foreign cinema. I can remember picking up this Bertolucci film and Godard's "Contempt".... and the rest is history. I honestly don't understand why a major film such as this isn't available in the US, strictly confined to a BFI Blu-Ray version.

5. Night Wind (1999)- Like Satyajit Ray, "Night Wind" is more of a request that Philippe Garrel films are available out there. Granted, my appreciation of Garrel's work is inconsistent at best. I loved "Regular Lovers" and "Frontier of Dawn", yawned my way through his highly experimental "The Inner Scar" and remain lukewarm about "Emergency Kisses" and "I Can Hear the Guitar Singing". Having said all that, his films are exciting and meta-movie.... and I like that.

6. The Alphabet Murders (1965)- Frank Tashlin's detective spoof follows Detective Poirot (Tony Randall) as he investigates the above mentioned murders of the alphabet. I really have no idea how good this film is, but it routinely crops up on the lists of most requested movies wanted on DVD.

7. Air Doll (2009)- Maybe the idea of a blow-p doll coming to life and falling in love with a vieo store clerk is too risque for modern audiences? Nah. The more shocking fact is that "Air Doll" was directed by the acclaimed Hirokazu Koreeda and it can't find a home beyond a Canadian and Japanese DVD version.

8. El bonaerense (2002)- One of my favorite international directors working today is Pablo Trapero. Please, please seek out "Carancho" and "Lion's Den". This 2002 film tells the story of a locksmith who joins the Buenos Aries police force. Receiving alot of attention from Cannes and Toronto in '02, it's a complete mystery why this film isn't available (except in the UK, Spain, Greece....) and Trapero's other films are.

9. Man Without A Map (1968)- I do know where a copy of this long-lost Hiroshi Teshigahara film can be found and I'm considering it, since I doubt it'll ever be released. From IMDB- "A private detective is hired to find a missing man by his wife. While his search is unsuccessful, the detective's own life begins to resemble the man for whom he is searching." Teshigahara is such a provocative filmmaker. Three of his films were recently released in a boxset ("Woman In the Dunes", "Pitfall" and "The Face of Another") and all are worth your time.

10. Night breed (1989)- Oh the wrath this film brought upon itself from hard core Clive Barker fans. As a fourteen year old, it just scared the shit out of me. With Halloween approaching, I'd love to see it again. The DVD is OOP but can be bought reasonably on amazon.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Urban Wasteland: Killer Joe

William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" is an aggressive white-trash film noir that consistently shifts its point of view between its characters, creating a bizarre and almost over-the-top narrative that accelerates as its progresses to its shattering finale. And did I mention it's brutally funny... as well as just brutal?

Starring Matthew McConaughy as the titular cop turned contract killer, he's brought into the illicit scheme of a dumber-than-dirt Dallas family to murder and collect the insurance money of another family member. The father and son duo of Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church fail to realize the full implications of their plan, especially after Joe falls in love with their damaged, vulnerable sister/daughter Juno Temple. Snaking its way through the noir machinations, "Killer Joe" is a dirty, grimy experience that feels like a B-movie from the mid-90's Oliver Stone... and I mean all of this in the most positive way. I was riveted, unable to take my eyes off the screen as McConaughey owns every scene and plot the reversals fly from out of nowhere. "Killer Joe" also takes as its milieu the downtrodden, dilapidated wasteland of West Dallas. Nary a skyscraper or downtown skyline is in view, instead placing the characters among the Trinity river outflow boundary.... a cesspool of abandoned train tracks, broken down pool halls and graffiti rimmed highway underpasses. It's probably one of the most striking films I've ever seen filmed in Dallas without actually revealing any charm or technology of the city.

Adapted from a play by Tracey Letts, this is the second collaboration between he Friedkin, the first being the equally tough "Bug" in 2006. Both films frame their collective genres- psychological horror and film noir- within a strictly interior mode. "Killer Joe" features a wham-bam editing style, whose cuts and reaction shots are incisive and almost hurtful. "Killer Joe" is much closer in style to Freidkin's "The Exorcist" than anything else he's done. Secondly, the sound design is amazing, crafting barking dog noises, helicopters whirling overhead and engines revving into an overwhelming canvas of buzz. All of this frames "Killer Joe" as a technically unnerving effort. But perhaps the most interior moments of all reside in the outstanding finale, where tense conversation and psychological warfare meet over a dinner table full of fried chicken and almost unbearable silence. I doubt this was the type of endorsement KFC was looking for.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Summer 3


Writer-director Maiwenn’s French language film “Polisse” is much more an actor’s showcase than a genuine police procedural. It’s obvious reference point, Bertrand Tavernier’s brilliant and still unavailable “L.627”, “Polisse” follows the rambling day-to-day actions of the Child Protective Unit whose scenarios within the film are said to be based on actual events. But Maiwenn, who co-stars as the beautiful, lanky photographer given access to the close-knit group of cops for a pictorial book, is much less interested in meticulous real-life police work and more enamored with the messy personal/sexual relationships of the cops. Instead of plausible police investigations, we get over-the-top histrionics as we’re introduced to a pair of lesbian partners, a cop who develops a crush on his pregnant co-worker and Maiwenn becoming involved with Fred (Joey Starr) who emerges as the eventual protagonist of the group. Eventually, “Polisse” dispenses with truthful “thriller” aspects of the police unit altogether and actually becomes insulting in some ways, turning one scene of a young girl’s sexual confusion over oral sex in exchange for the return of her cell phone into a raucous outburst of comedic reactions from the questioning officers. If that’s based in reality, then the cops profiled in Maiwenn’s sub par effort are the worst law abiders on the planet.


Carnally transferred from the strict confines of late 1890’s England to the bustling, sun-drenched land of modern day India, Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna” is a wonderfully twisted variation on Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Ubervilles”. Starring the magnetically beautiful Freida Pinto as Trishna, Hardy’s lingering tale of sexual power plays and emotional control is a devastating example of modern creativity putting a spin on old fashioned literature. Plucked from relative poverty by rich, handsome Jay (Riz Ahmed), their relationship blossoms then turns sour when the consequences become real. Winterbottom’s hurried yet succinctly edited style of filmmaking tracks the sexual power plays between Pinto and Jay with charged energy… a style that’s worked so well for Winterbottom since the mid 90’s. “Trishna” also continues the director’s fascination with depicting sex in a frank, uncompromising light. But it’s the cold realization in the film’s final moments that really sticks with the viewer…. A fade out to white that is certainly more nihilistic than many of Winterbottom’s previous efforts. A really good film.

Total Recall

Visually flamboyant and building on the rain-soaked, culturally cross pollinated future of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” ghetto, Len Wiseman’s “Total Recall” is almost a really good film. There are some terrific set pieces here, negated by Wiseman’s odd choice to distractingly cut over and over, sometimes during conversations with no regard to who is talking and almost always a few seconds short during its action sequences. As for the story, based on a Philip K. Dick and previous Paul Verhoeven adaptation, “Total Recall” gets a pass even though Colin Farrell maintains a consistent “what the hell?” look on his face and the effort is marred by the-villain-who-talks-too-much-and-allows-the-good-guy to-escape syndrome.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Mortal Storms: Edward Yang's "That Day On the Beach"

Even though director Edward Yang already had one short film under his belt (a portion of the omnibus "In Our Time" in 1983), nothing would quite compare to the ambition and brilliance of his debut feature length film "That Day, On the Beach" one year later. Sprawling and intimately epic, "That Day, On the Beach" has quickly become my very favorite Yang film... and considering his brief but magnificent output, that's saying alot.

With a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, "That Day, On the Beach" takes its time in telling a story in flashback (and even flashback within the flashback) of the reunion between old friends JiaLi (Syvlia Chang) and Qin Qin (Terry Hu). Qin is a successful pianist in town for a show when she decides to reach out to her old friend. In casual conversation, JiaLi tells of her struggle after the two friends parted after high school and her subsequent relationship with Daiwei (David Mao) and their turbulent affairs together. To complicate matters, Qin Qin was once in love with JiaLi's brother, and this is the reason she initially wanted to reunite with her. Still, "That Day, On the Beach" is Sylvia Chang's story, seamlessly shifting from past to present as she tells her story to her old friend, including the strange disappearance of her husband and the tender bonds between the family she once left behind.

Perhaps seeing Yang's debut film last gives me a more deliberate appreciation of his total work. Yang is no stranger to epic family dramas ("Yi Yi" and "A Brighter Summer Day" among them), and with "That Day, On the Beach"), the characteristics that define so much of his later work are on prominent display. Characters, who have a small part in the beginning of the story, return later to define and emphasize a fragile moment that felt minimal earlier in the film. Like the boy gangs that run rampant in "A Brighter Summer Day", Yang's marginal characters can, at any moment, rise up and become the focus. I suppose I should learn that the term "marginal" has no value in Yang's worldview. Also, the beauty of "That Day, On the Beach" is the way Yang shifts our perception and feelings. In one early scene, JiaLi escapes her imposed arranged marriage.... her image seen cat walking outside the window of her parent's home in a driving rainstorm. Years later, when her mother comes to visit her and the two are engaged in a quiet conversation, Yang takes us back to that scene, this time shown through the mother's eyes and her small, reassuring gasp as she sees her daughter escaping into the night... and then back to the present conversation where her mother smiles slightly, approvingly. And I can't imagine a more loving, creatively omniscient image in any Yang film than Christopher Doyle's camera panning down to capture the furtive embracing of hands between newlywed husband and wife Dai wei and JiaLi. Though life (and happiness) doesn't always work out, "That Day, On the Beach" is mostly about survival. And although the film focuses on Syvlia Chang, both her role and that of Qin Qin reveal Yang's attraction to strong, mindful female characters, another trait that would mark so many of Yang's other passionate works. Nothing short of a masterpiece, "That Day, On the Beach" cements Edward Yang's position as one of the most influential directors of the last 30 years. Now if only ALL his films were readily available for mass consumerism.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Revisiting the Faves: The Killer Inside Me

Michael Winterbottom's "The Killer Inside Me" ranked as my number 7 favorite film from 2010.

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

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

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