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.