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.