Monday, March 26, 2012

70's Bonanza: State of Siege

"State of Siege", directed by Costa-Gavras, has alot in common with the 70's films of Francesco Rosi.... films that are right in my wheelhouse with their dry, intelligent depiction of the vagaries of big government mixed up with corruption, terrorism and bureaucratic mess. Like "The Mattei Affair" or especially "Lucky Luciano", Costa-Gavras' film takes one incident- the kidnapping of a high ranking government official- and spins a narrative from several angles, viewpoints and moral conviction. And because the film opens with a startling discovery, the prime motivation is not in telling the story with a resolution, but in the high--wire act that both sides of the law navigate across.

Released in 1973, gaining no real fanfare and relatively lost in home video distribution (my copy is a Region 4 disc from Spain), "State of Siege" is an amazing and angry film. Yves Montand plays Philip Michael Santore, an agent for the AID (US Agency For International Development) when he's kidnapped by a group of terrorists and held hostage. The entire course of the film is refracted back and forth across several Latin American countries as one of the kidnappers interrogates Montand for his supposed in collusion with the government, especially his role in creating police states and roving "death squads" around the globe. There are many moments for Costa-Gavras (always the liberal leftist) to display these absurd acts of violence and husky, looming stares of the men in charge to clearly define the 'good' and the 'bad' and position himself clearly on one side of the fence, but "State of Siege" also generates some honest moments between terrorist and hostage. It's left up for interpretation exactly how much Montand is involved with the charges waged against him, and the scene where he meets his mortality rings as an honest, quiet reaction.

"State of Siege" is an amorphous title. A majority of the film details the police state Uruguay is hurtled into after Montand and two other officials are kidnapped. It could also reference the attack on Montand's character as well. Like "Z", Costa-Gavras takes a purely functional stance, relieving the film of any real emotion. "State of Siege" is a film of action and idea, working in painstaking detail to show how the terrorists carry out the kidnappings, stealing one car after another, parking them in strategic locations and executing their plan. Later, when the fate of Santore is put to the group, Costa-Gavras holds on a bus passenger as a stream of terrorist partners nonchalantly get on the bus, carry on the same conversation over and over, arrive at a judgement, and then exit the bus. It's democracy perverted, but democracy nonetheless. Yet just as much attention is given to the police force as they relentlessly canvas the city as well as a journalist (the great O.E. Hasse) probing military and government officials for their (non) response to the event. All sides of the argument are given weight, and for a politically charged film such as this, that's all one can ask for.

Costa-Gavras would go on to a great career, racking up Hollywood efforts like "Betrayed", "Mad City" and "Missing", but nothing comes close to the incisive, burning power of his early 70's political thrillers such as "State of Siege".

Friday, March 23, 2012

Let the Games begin

No, not a post about "The Hunger Games"..... but something more exciting and riveting. My 2012 fantasy baseball team.


Mike Napoli (C)
Albert Pujols (1st)
Brandon Phillips (2nd)
Emilio Bonifacio (3rd)
Jimmy Rollins (SS)
Eric Hosmer (Util)
Eric Aybar (Util)
Andrew McCutchen (OF)
Ben Revere (OF)
Mark Trumbo (OF)
Melky Cabrera (OF)
Josh Willingham (OF)
Raul Ibanez (OF)

Neil Walker
Jhonny Peralta
Daniel Murphy


Roy Halladay
Tim Lincecum
Ian Kennedy
James Shields
Jair Jurrjeans
Joel Hanrahan
Jose Valverde
Jordan Walden
Drew Storen

Monday, March 19, 2012

Destruction of Magnificent Proportions: The Walking Dead and Treme

I suppose it's unfair to compare the fictional end of days scenario with the real life force of nature that was Hurricane Katrina, but both "The Walking Dead" and "Treme" deal with the apocalypse in very moving and heartfelt ways.... specifically how a select group of people scheme and survive when faced with the most preposterous of odds. Still, here' a few words on each.... just in case you're NOT watching them and I can implore you to do so.

Based on a graphic novel, I was with "The Walking Dead" from the very beginning. At first, I was expecting a George Romero horror-fest, unsure of how confidently AMC would handle the series but anticipating, at the very least, an entertaining time. Over the course of two seasons, the show not only proves that no main character is safe, but it has expertly established a foundation of human emotion that often builds to terrifying proportions upon each episode's finale. Like the brother to brother face off in Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan", "The Walking Dead" often instills its greatest chills and horrifying gasps from the violence inflicted from human to human rather than the hungry undead. It has become mandatory viewing each week. It also forces me to shutter myself off from social media in lieu of reading a spoiler- as was the case on an episode two weeks ago. If that isn't evidence of a large cult following, than I don't know what is.

Likewise, HBO's "Treme", created by "The Wire" scribe David Simon, takes as its main setting post-Katrina New Orleans, fashioning a roundelay of characters suffering to survive and acclimate. There's the small business owner (a wonderful Kim Dickens), the affluent intellectual family (John Goodman and Melissa Leo), the troubadour musicians and a family dealing with the disappearance and maltreatment of their son after being incarcerated. Like "The Wire", Simon and his team of writers give ample time to each story, allowing them to breathe, criss crossing them back and forth upon each other and creating a vibrant blueprint of life directly after the disaster. Like "The Walking Dead", there's anger, confusion and resentment, but the overriding theme is one of survival and community. Choreographed in-between the human drama is the resilient nature of French Quarter jazz and impromptu jams. The shared musical experience is, at times, infectious. Just when the oppression of the federal government's lack of expediency becomes to much or a character laments the destruction of her business' tattered roof, "Treme" washes all the sadness away with a longeur that features blaring horns and swinging trombones. It's not long before we're taken back to the drama, but the idea that another horn session is right around the corner creates a strong sense of healing. "Treme" is terrific in the way it balances both.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Top 5 List: Morose French Kids, Post 1990

Yet another random top 5 list that came to me recently. Post 1990 because, you know, it's way too easy to create a list from early Truffaut, Garrel, Godard and Eustache!

5. A Single Girl- Not only was this the film that introduced a majority of the western world to the stunningly beautiful Virginie Ledoyen (and she can act too!), but it helped establish director Benoit Jacquot's career. Released in 1995, it was one of the first films I can remember Dardenne Brothers style.... i.e. a simple idea (a cleaning girl struggling to make a life for herself), exemplified through long handheld camerawork perched just above the shoulder and creating extreme tension from the mundane. Benoit would go on to make other films in this vein, but none had the power of "A Single Girl", largely thanks to Ledoyen's steely eyed gaze and supermodel visage. With a pregnancy just discovered and a forceful push into the adult world, "A Single Girl" could be described as a psychological procedural as Ledoyen goes about her daily routines trying to push the bad news aside. A great film. Jacquot deserved more recognition on home video distribution. Ledoyen went onto a terrific little career as well.

4. New World-The late Alain Corneau made this quirky, fascinating little movie in the mid 1990's, garnering some attention due to its supporting role of mid 90's "it girl" Alicia Silverstone as the love interest of a jazz-crazy French teen during the American occupation of France in the decade after World war 2. Patrick (Nicolas Chatel) loves a prim and proper French girl Marie (Sarah Grappin) until his horizons are expanded through jazz music and the arrival of an American soldier and his family, including teeny bopper Silverstone. The idea of the loud, boisterous American versus the quaint French ways of living are a bit heavy-handed, but the film hits so many right notes in its depiction of young love that it wins one over. A young James Gandolfini also stars as a burn-out soldier who befriends both Patrick and falls in love with the impressionable Marie. Corneau's straight forward filming style and the charismatic performances raise "New World" into something quite good. There are dark moments and lots of brooding by Patrick as well.

3. Rosetta- No list like this would be complete without a Dardennes Brothers film, right? For my money, "Rosetta" is it. Sure I admire "The Son and really love "Lorna's Silence", but "Rosetta" was the film that put them on the map and branded their now imitable style. Morose doesn;t even begin to describe the punishment Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne) endures throughout the film, losing her job in the opening scene and crawling around a cold Paris scratching a living by selling old clothes and trying to stave off the death of her alcoholic mother. As a surprise winner at the Cannes Festival in '99, "Rosetta" is a tense, compulsive experience.

2. Wild Reeds- I much prefer the French title, "Les Roseaux Sauvages". Andre Techine's much lauded 1994 film, along with the next film on this list, probably did more than any other French film of its kind to propagate the confusing lives of French teens in the 90's. This time its a love triangle between young Francios (Gael Morel) and his best friend Maite (Elodie Bouchez), who has a hidden crush on him. Francois meets Serge (Stephane Rideau) and his latent homosexuality is stirred up. Techine establishes wonderful atmosphere in "Wild Reeds", placing the confused teenagers during a very volcanic time.... circa the Algerian War, whose effects are felt in killed loved ones and talk of future enlistment.

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

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Love Will Tear Us Apart: Edward Yang's "Taipei Story"

Edward Yang's second feature, "Taipei Story" gives us glimpses of the impulses that would drive a majority of his later work. Though the film stays primarily focused on a couple instead of the panoramic array of characters that will embody his films directly after this sophomore effort, there are striking hallmarks within "Taipei Story" that make it a necessary stopover for anyone interested in this greatly under-represented filmmaker.

Charting the romantic demise of a couple, Lung (Hou Hsiao Hsien) and Chin (Chin Tsai), "Taipei Story" can be seen as an allegory for Taipei itself. In one of the film's early scenes, an architect who works with Chin stares out the window (a prominent theme throughout the film) at the Taipei skyline and comments that he can barely remember which buildings he helped design. It's an ominous quote that will hang over the remainder of the film as Chin and Lung grow apart and become indecipherable to each other. Chin's company is purchased by another and her job is deemed "redundant", so she quits. Lung, unable to really let go of the past, travels to America to visit family and returns with faded dreams of emigrating there and helping his brother-in-law with his business. After a brief conversation- and a walk through a spacious apartment building that Chin wants to rent in the opening scene- Yang keeps his couple apart with missed appointments at karaoke bars and Lung spacing out in front of a television set watching tapes of last year's baseball games. There are no great arguments or heavy emotional conflicts between them. Silence, indifference and the restlessness of being together for so long gently wash over the couple, and Yang's patient camera and sense of impending dread take control and turn "Taipei Story" into a cautious little thriller. There are eventual outbursts of violence and a finale that hurts, but overall, "Taipei Story" works in little flourishes.

As part of the revolving group of creative artists who spearheaded the Taiwanese New Wave, actor Hou Hsiao Hsien would make a bigger name for himself as a director. It's not hard to imagine a terrific career as an actor as well, emoting so much through his slumped shoulders and the way he uses his hands to cover his face while smoking a cigarette. Likewise, actress Chin Tsai- who would later be Yang's wife for several years- creates a full blooded character. There are slight flirtations with a male coworker, but we get the sense that she truly loves Lung. By placing her in the upscale corporate world in a time of major technological upheaval, it's easy to understand the massive confusion she's facing both professionally and personally. And as a final perfect ending- the image of her staring out a high rise window, unaware of what's happened to Lung below, encapsulates so much professionally and personally for all involved.... director Yang as well. Taipei would never look the same.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Indie Reviews

The Innkeepers

Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” is another low fi horror experiment… call it hipster horror if you will. But West’s retro sensibilities are firmly intact again (see the wonderful, if marginally better “House of the Devil”). With a sly nod to Kubrick’s “The Shining” through its ominous pans down hotel hallways and lots of embedded humor, “The Innkeepers” will satisfy both fans of 80’s horror and anyone sincerely attracted to actress Sara Paxton- as I am now. Starring Paxton and Pat Healy, they are the lone employees of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a statuesque hotel that is facing its last weekend in existence after over 150 years in business. Paxton and Healy consider themselves amateur paranormal scientists, and the dilapidated, almost empty hotel bears the perfect time to do some electronic digging for spirits, which naturally, yields some terrifying results. West understands character connectivity, which he emphasizes for over half the film, giving us plenty of time to get to know and sympathize with our amateur sleuths before the shit hits the fan. Besides adding to the already impressive resume of writer/director West, “The Innkeepers” is atmospheric and terrific fun.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

In adapting Lionel Shriver‘s novel, director Lynne Ramsay hasn’t strayed far from her avant garde roots, splicing up the novel’s straightforward narrative about a troubled young man and his damaging after effects into a hotbed of distorted camera lens, disorienting audio and ethereal passages of wordless moments. Music, images and sounds- like a water sprinkler- bleed across several scenes giving the affect of an audio-visual museum piece more than a film, but it works. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” may seem needlessly arty, but this experimental drive is also where the film draws its feral power. Starring Tilda Swinton as the emotionally battered mother, the film shakes up its timeline of stressful motherhood, hinting at the monstrous acts of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and her life before and after his fateful decision. Through the musical score of Jonny Greenwood, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” becomes an alienating portrait that gives Swinton another opaque, interior performance. Brutal one moment and then brutally honest the next- such as the reaction of one man at an office party after Swinton rebuffs his advances- the film challenges and confronts us with horrors out in the open… and ones that we’re forced to deal with, regrettably, in our modern society all too often. A remarkable film.


Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” is a blazing, hard edged character study that features a tremendous performance by Woody Harrelson doing his best “Bad Lieutenant” impersonation. With a script by the legendary James Ellroy, “Rampart” takes place in a very specific time and place- 1999 Los Angeles, hot summer in the middle of the LAPD corruption scandal. As police officer Dave Brown, Harrelson is under heavy duress due to his recorded beating of a suspect. “Rampart” tracks Harrelson’s slow decline both on the job and at home with his family, which is even more hectic with two ex wives, two confused daughters and a boatload of one night stands. As his sophomore film, writer/director Moverman has crafted a film that feels at once organic and kinetic. There’s a scene early on, around the dinner table, that feels so perfectly acted as Harrelson bounces around in flirtation with each ex-wife and then a back-and-forth with his teenage daughters, it would be easy to tag the film as improvised. But, with the pedigree of Ellroy and other scenes that give Harrelson long, stately (and filthy) monologues, the script firmly proves a foundation to a narrative that is otherwise rambling, but only in the best sense. Numerous sub plots are introduced, such as Ned Beatty as a retired cop who feeds Harrelson information and Ice Cube as an Internal Affairs officer investigating him. As shabby and aimless as these sub plots may be, the genuine thrill of “Rampart” is its fierce central performance by Harrelson and its obscure, perfectly realized ending that trades in tidy conclusions for mood and introspect. It’s one of the very best films of the year.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Unintentional Double Bill: Silence of the Sea and The Night of the Generals

Anatole Litvak’s “The Night of the Generals” and Jean Pierre Melville’s “The Silence of the Sea” express their Occupation-timed themes with wildly varying degrees of sensitivity. While both could be subtitled “The Inner Monologue of an SS High Commander”, how they get to the root of madness via their self absorbed, larger-than-life Nazi commanders are distinctly different events. Litvak’s film, released in the late 60’s, is a much more lurid treatment of the Nazi atrocity, headlined by an all star international cast and an overwrought, queasy performance by Peter O Toole. Melville’s film is a chamber piece, rarely leaving its single main setting and drowning the viewer in subtle voice over that plays out like a stream of conscience diary just 5 years after the war had ended.

At 2 and a half hours, Litvak’s “The Night of the Generals” (1967) doesn’t seem to have a very hearty appreciation, yet it’s an ambitious, terrifically entertaining film that dared to frame a fictional murder mystery around very real events of the Third Reich. Omar Sharif is Colonel Grau, an intelligence officer following up on an eyewitness account of a murdered prostitute in 1942 Warsaw. Seen leaving the building immediately after the murder was a German soldier identified by the red stripe in his trousers, a clear indication of a general’s uniform. By process of elimination, Grau discovers that only three generals had unknown whereabouts the night of the murder: General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasance), General Gabler (Charles Grey) and General Tanz (Peter O Toole). Grau’s investigation spans over twenty years and is consistently interrupted by history- first by the sacking of the Polish ghettos by General Tanz, followed by his own promotion to Paris and the Occupation there, and then later interrupted by the plot to kill Hitler. Yes, there is justice served and a perpetrator is eventually brought to justice but its not by the good guy of our story, but by a peer instead and only after two decades of the war ending. “The Night of the Generals” is good for a history lesson, but immediately startling for its no-nonsense treatment of these hallmark Nazi moments. Just when Litvak establishes the three possible murderers and Grau is closing in on the most likely candidate of Tanz (O Toole), his division is in the throws of executing Hitler’s Final Solution in the Warsaw ghettos. These atrocious actions, memorialized for the entire running time of other films, is given only a few minutes of screen time here, considered as buffer for the lethal mental state of General Tanz and an excuse for Grau (Sharif) to temporarily postpone his investigation. It’s only a day later when Grau receives a promotion to Paris by two of the three men he’s investigating and his case is permanently sidelined.

Flash forward two years and another girl turns up murdered in Paris, this time with all three Generals stationed there as the Allies push toward the German positions. Grau re-opens his investigation, only for the film to be sidetracked and deepened by the plots of a coup to assassinate Hitler. Again, the murder mystery takes a curious backseat as the film explores the various backdoor dealings of several Generals, but it’s also in this hefty middle section where the film explores the mental breakdown of General Tanz. O’Toole really gets to go off the deep end here. Through his fractured state of mind, obsessed with cleanliness and timeliness, “The Night of the Generals” becomes a Jack the Ripper tale that, for my money, best appropriates the nature of unchecked Nazi aggression on both the global and personal scale. We’ve already seen O’Toole wipe out a whole section of Poland, so what’s going to stop him from murdering a girl of the night? While the real life events of “The Night of the Generals” are firmly recorded, it’s the fictional aspects that seem to dictate the driving madness behind the whole Nazi agenda.

Jean Pierre Melville’s “The Silence of the Sea” trades in terror as well, but it’s psychological terror. His debut film released in 1947, “The Silence of the Sea” is based on a short story secretly released during the Occupation by a French writer named Vercors. It’s depiction of a Nazi Lieutenant slowly turning his back on the Nazi movement while embracing the quiet beauty of France certainly establishes the novella’s Resistance tinted ideas. In cinematic terms, Melville’s film is simple and economic. As the Nazi lieutenant, actor Howard Vernon is steely and opaque. In the film’s opening moments, he arrives in a small provincial Paris suburb and requisitions the upstairs room of an old man (Jean Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane). As an act of resistance, the uncle and niece resolutely deny speaking to him. This doesn’t seem to bother the Lieutenant very much as he swaggers downstairs every night and delivers a soliloquy of thoughts and statements about his past love affairs and his love of French culture. Through simple point of view shots, Melville also weaves a delicate relationship between the three, continually framing the nape of the niece’s neck under the Lieutenant’s loving gaze and the uncle’s stone stare. Initially designed as a monster due to his uniform and career choice, Vernon and director Melville slowly peel away the veneer and create a conflicted narrative where its difficult to assign blame to anyone. It’s only late in the film when the Lieutenant, confronted with his army’s ultimate goal of wiping out France, that his inner pacifism is released and the monster is given a human form.

As with “Army of Shadows” years later, Melville would complete what was ultimately hailed as the best Resistance film. With “The Silence of the Sea”, the basics are there…. And remember this was only a few years after the war itself had ended. Placing “The Silence of the Sea” in retrospect, its examination of a high commander coming to terms with his nation’s atrocities is downright frightening. There are vague mentions of gas chambers and a massacre in Treblinka that ultimately shake the Lieutenant to his core, but its also Melville’s inference that this man’s sexuality is questionable. After a conversation in which an old roommate decries France and calls it a “beast”, the Lieutenant returns to his country boarding room with self destruction in his head. That conversation is the real dagger to his heart. And like the best of Melville’s films, where quick editing and fluttering glances provide the big thrills, it’s the hushed murmur of the niece that deals the biggest explosion.

With so many portraits of psychopathic Nazi commanders littering the cinema landscape, “The Night of the Generals” and “The Silence of the Sea” give us alternative glimpses into this cinematic paradigm. Both films are readily available on DVD, with “The Silence of the Sea” available on a Korean DVD label as well as a region 2 Blu-Ray edition.