Monday, December 30, 2013


As for the last post of 2013, I think this heartbreaking story is well worth the finale of the year. Happy New Year everyone.... The Stunning Sacrifice.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Serious Radio: The Best Music of 2013

Admittedly, I dropped off the radar with music last year in 2012. I didn't listen to new artists.... seemed to glaze over with the music selections on my XM dials.... and downloaded/bought the least amount of music in a long time. With 2013, I made a vow to reverse that trend and I'm glad I did. My favorites of the year listed below (with videos included) are a mixture of new talent and old stalwarts. Also, consider this the kick off to some great end of the year stuff that will culminate in mid January. Enjoy.

10. The Appleseed Cast "Illumination Ritual"

Alongside Explosions In the Sky, The Appleseed Cast are the best, grossly unknown post-rock band out there. Their latest album, "Illumination Ritual", came and went in the spring without any notice. A bit derivative of their previous stuff, yet their sound is still stately and epic.

9. Bill Callahan "Dream River"

I'm not trying to sound snobbish, but either one gets Bill Callahan or not. His slow, baritone voice either hits you where it hurts or bores you to tears. His latest album, full of small ballads and love lorn lyrics hits me where it hurts, again.

8. Zola Jesus "Versions"

The idea of a singer re-inventing and re-playing certain older songs mixed in with new ones, backed by a shrieking classical orchestra can be risky. Mysterious singer Zola Jesus did just that and it reached haunting proportions.

7. Pearl Jam "Lightning Bolt"

Even sub par Pearl Jam is better than most straightforward rock out there. Yes, I understand that doesn't feel like a resounding endorsement, but "Lightning Bolt" is ragged, linear rock and roll performed with soul by the boys.

6. Grizzly Bear "Shields Expanded and B sides"

Like Zola Jesus, this release is a variation on an earlier release (from last year), but one that deserves to be mentioned. It also boasts the best single song of the year with "Will Calls".

5. Fuck Buttons "Slow Focus"

As someone who admires but rarely buys into the trance techno scene, my adoration for the English duo known as Fuck Buttons is surprising. Just listening to this album- which I've done ALOT over the past three months while driving- and you feel the vibrance of something new and exciting.

4. Daft Punk "Random Access Memories"

Part house party, part top 40 FM dance music... but mostly just great Daft Punk. After this album and their moody contribution to the "Tron: Legacy" film a few years ago, Daft Punk shows no sign of lessening their grip on the electronica crown.

3. Phosphorescent "Muchacho"

Earlier in the year, I called this album dark, introspective and something close to great. Nothing's changed. Singer/songwriter Matthew Houck has fashioned a host of songs that touch on the modern recesses of life with wit and, at times, extreme sorrow.

2. The National "Trouble Will Find Me"

The indie rock scene kings scored again this year with "Trouble Will Find Me", an album that zig zags from the depressing to the uplifting with verve, all led by Matt Berninger's self reflexive lyrics. As a longtime fan of this band, not only am I glad they've finally hit it big, but hope their stardom never diminshes their energy.

1. Volcano Choir "Repave"

Back around the first of the year, I finally discovered Bon Iver and his many permutations. This band, yet another of his, released their second album after a very mysterious and offbeat debut one. "Repave" sounds a little more like classic Bon Iver, but it has a reputation all its own. Not only has this been the defining album for me this year, but one that seems to grow and evolve with each listen. If that's not the sign of timeless art, then I'm not sure what is.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Last Few Films I've Seen; November edition

1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)- Jean Marc Vallee's sobering portrait of a heterosexual playboy (Matthew McConaughey in the capstone performance of his recent re-invention) struggling with his diagnosis of HIV handles everything with no overt sentimentality and genuine restraint. Jared Leto, as his cross-dressing partner in crime, also delivers an achingly real performance, none more so devastating than when he goes to visit his father. One of the year's finest.

2. Death of a Killer (1964)- Robert Hossein stars and directs in this French noir-western hybrid of a recently released crook trying to find out who double crossed him. Yes, this has all been done before (and better) with certain Melville films, but one has to enjoy Hossein's blending of genre. The wordless stretches, crossed with close-up then long shot, echo Sergio Leone. Hossein is such an interesting filmmaker whose works are all but extinct on domestic video release.

3. Computer Chess (2013)- Andrew Bujalski's black and white indie about an early 80's computer chess convention not only overdoes it in dress- butterfly collars and short ties in excess- but it brandishes a VHS camcorder visual style that feels as cliche as its rambling, uninteresting topic. I've admired some of Bujalski's films in the past, but this one (and really the whole mumblecore movement) is becoming an inverse joke about itself full of shoddy acting and stuttering hipster emotions.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)- I somehow missed this one in theaters last year, and with the second part soon to arrive, I needed to catch up. The zealous sheer of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has worn off, it seems. I found myself pretty dis-interested in this one from the start, whether it was the needless scenes of dwarfs and hobbits singing along or the pretentious, on-the-nose narrative that features none of the thrilling adventures of the Rings films.

5. Whores Glory (2011)- Simply tremendous documentary by critical darling Michael Glawogger examining the daily rituals of women in three brothels located in Thailand, India and Mexico. Once one gets past the salacious and frank material, what emerges is a terrifying portrait of the way men sublimate women and the hopeless cycles they endure with each other. The moment one Indian prostitute goes from simply explaining her role to the sobbing rhetoric of "there must be another way to live", "Whores Glory" transcends its unwavering, patient documentarian eye into something more poetic.

6. Oldboy (2013)- No doubt director Spike Lee and actor Josh Brolin were faithful to the original source material, but as with all remakes of previously great films, why?

7. Nebraska (2013)- As a bit of a resistant towards Alexander Payne films, I do have some exceptions with his latest film, yet it still works well as a muted character study. Although I'm not as enamored as most with Bruce Dern's stoic performance as an old man limping his way towards a pie-in-the-sky reward, the real revelation is Will Forte as his in-tow son. Bob Nelson's script hits a few skid marks along the way, including a very uneven rendition by actress June Squibb as Dern's wife, but "Nebraska" winds up a gently affecting drama.

8. Top of the Lake (2013)- Originally aired on Sundance earlier this year as a seven part miniseries, filmmakers Jane Campion and Garth Evans create an atmospheric mystery that's as much about a time and place as it is the disappearance of a young girl. Elsabeth Moss, as the young detective brought home to assist the local police due to her experience with young children, is fierce and intelligent. Bring into the mix a very intense Peter Mullan as the missing girl's father, a female hippie commune led by gray haired Holly Hunter and lots of psychological history throughout the whole town and "Top of the Lake" is the most idiosyncratic series since... "Twin Peaks"?

9. A Bullet For the General (1968)- Watched this one for the great Gian Maria Volonte and came away awestruck by the performance of baby-faced Lou Castel as a pin-stripe suit wearing assassin.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Masterfully Done Again.... the year in film

major bow to David Ehrlich at for another stunning best of the year edit. I really hope these become necessary viewing for years to come.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

And so the montage begins

hat tip toMinty's Menagerie for guiding me to this. First of the year with plenty more to come.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Asghar Farhadi Files: Fireworks Wednesday

Set during the celebration of the Persian New Year, Asghar Farhadi's fourth narrative feature is an allegorical title that not only leaves room for plenty of disconcerting bangs and pops off-screen, but lays bare the fragile framework of crackling human emotions as well. So far, each of my reviews of a Farhadi film has, irrevocably, compared it to his worldwide art house break out film "A Separation". While each film has been a stepping stone towards the formalism and themes of that Oscar winner, "Fireworks Wednesday" is clearly the culmination of those works. Yes, its a terrific film in its own right, but one that succinctly looks forward to the dynamism of his characters as one marriage falls apart and many others are caught up in the maelstrom. 

Rouhi (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a young girl who arrives at an apartment house to clean for owner Mozdeh (Hediyeh Tehrani). Mozdeh is in the middle of an argument with husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad). After the husband leaves, the jealous wife employs Rouhi to spy on her next door neighbor whom she suspects in having an affair with her husband. Rouhi, about to be a young bride herself, finds herself caught up even deeper in the relationship between husband and wife as she first lies in defense of the husband, then later becomes involved with the husband's duplicitous actions.

The intimations toward Farhadi's respect of the cinema of John Cassavetes seem most prevalent when it comes to "Fireworks Wednesday". Rouhi is, seemingly, an innocent bystander forced to observe the stressful arguments and jealous thoughts that swirl around both husband and wife. In one sensational set piece, Farhadi's tracking camera charts a verbal argument in and around the apartment for several unbroken minutes, shifting from person to person and room to room, heightening the tension as we struggle to understand exactly whom is telling the truth. In the jealous wife, Tehrani is a trembling, nervous screen presence, even resorting to following her husband to work... a covert act that ends up with him slapping her on the street as the camera observes from a closing elevator door. Juxtaposed against her vibrating energy is Taraneh Alidoosti as Rouhmi. Her wide, beautiful eyes and exuberance about young love serve as the perfect antidote for her employer's poisonous marriage. We root for Rouhi, even though her character is a pawn in the ever shifting game. This is exemplified later in the film when husband Mozdeh offers to give her a ride home. We soon discover the long sequence is just an excuse for her to watch his son as he conducts other business. Like the best films of Cassavetes, "Fireworks Wednesday" settles into that supremely uncomfortable space where people use each other for duplicitous acts and psychological warfare. And like "A Woman Under the Influence" or "Minnie and Moskowitz", it also features a strong woman blurring the line between the real and the suggested. "Fireworks Wednesday" is a bracing example of the complicated, adult problems that not only made Cassavetes one of the giants, but seems to be propelling Farhadi as well.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trailers I Love

The Past


Dallas Buyers Club- a film I have seen that ranks as one of the finest of the year, completely devoid of overt sentimentality and directed with precision from Jean Marc Valee. Also, both Jared Leto and Matthew McCaughney deserve all the accolades they (hopefully) receive.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cinema Obscura: Dream City (Traumstadt)

One never quite knows what they're getting themselves into when they venture into the outsider 70's cinema of Eastern Europe. Films by the likes of Krystoff Zanussi or Miklos Jansco can be quite maddening, adventurous efforts. Well, the same can be said for Johannes Schaaf's "Dream City". Part horror movie, part apocalypse film but mostly just an angry allegory of man's inherent ability to destroy everything he touches, "Dream City" stars Per Oscarrson as a writer who receives an invitation from an old school friend to travel to his city where everyone lives in peace. The writer and his wife make the trip and end up in the dilapidated city where not everything is as peaceful as it seems.

"Dream City", released in 1973, is one of those wild films whose ideas are swirling in every frame. After arriving in the city, the writer and his wife become pawns in an ever-shifting game of human chess. The writer's attempts to visit Patera, his old friend and seeming sole oligarch of the city, is met with bureaucratic blindness and ineptitude. In fact, the civil servant the writer goes to see for his "audience pass" makes him come into his office not once but twice just so he can repeat his practiced lines several times.... since he interacts with so few people. The writer's wife, played to shrill perfection by long time actress Rosemarie Fendel, meets an even odder fate.... first, caught as the unwitting victim in a massive theatrical performance where everyone in the city seems to be play-acting their own fantasies (and featured as the film's crazy centerpiece of sound, camera movement and chaos) then secondly slowly becoming he voice of reason to her husband that this paradise is far from normal. Added to her misery is the fact the the writer has become infatuated with a deaf-mute beauty (named Olimpia, whose only screen credit is this film) who wanders around the city, sometimes involved with a man named Hercules Bell, a revolutionary intent on bringing violence to the people. In fact, it's this vague reference to a coup de tat as well as the shocking unmasking of the real Patera that gives "Dream City" its subversive impetus. It's as if a Grimm fairy tale were updated to the swinging 60' with a violent anarchic bent. As one can tell, this brief synopsis barely scratches the surface of Schaaf's weird allegory, but one that demands to be seen by anyone searching out the undiscovered, dark efforts of European cinema. .

Director Schaaf, judging from his profile on IMDB, could be an interesting experiment if more his films were available. See the description for a 1986 film called "Momo" with John Huston?! "Dream City", although encumbered with a lack of focus at times, it's still a highly watchable effort that will most likely improve with viewings as its dense themes and busy visual scheme hide certain elements on initial viewings. If nothing else, the image of a bald, naked woman wearing some sort of gold 3D glasses (a motif hinted at in the film, yet never really explained) is enough to make one seek out answers from this truly original work.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Produced and Abandoned #16

A few more titles deserving a region 1 DVD release:

1. Arcane Sorcerer (1996)- Pupi Avati's 90's cult film has been a gray market floater for years now, perhaps becoming even more sought after when filmmaker Guillermo del Toro named it one of his favorites in this book last year. Regarded as a major influence for his terrific kids chiller "The Devil's Backbone", the film has never been released on home video. Even del Toro admits to seeing the film as a bootleg copy. The film itself deals with a plot that sees a young priest meeting an old priest supposedly involved in black magic.

2. Ailsa (1994)- I remember reading about this film in the early 90's in "Film Comment". It even made a few best of lists that year, then promptly vanished. The description of the film sounds very Hitchcockian, as a young man becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who moves in next door. Starring no one of much consequence, "Ailsa" seems to be one of those indie films that made small waves at film festivals.

3. This Sweet Sickness (1977)- French filmmaker Claude Miller's bloody and disturbing psychological thriller stars a young Gerard Depardieu as a man obsessed with creating an imaginary life with the woman he loves. No one does passive-aggressive violence quite like the French, so this late 70's film has been on my list to track down for a while now. VHS copies do exist out there.

4. Man Facing Southeast (1986)- Directed by Eliseo Subelia, "Man Facing Southeast" is about a man who walks into a psychiatrist's office and claims to be from another planet. One of those films that seemed to be in heavy rotation back in the day on either IFC or Sundance, and now totally gone. It's also said to be the inspiration for "K-Pax" with Kevin Spacey... and possibly an outright remake of it. There are region 2 Mexican DVD versions out there, but that's it.

5. Three For the Road (1987)- One of my very favorite 80's movies, starring Charlie Sheen and Alan Ruck as two men assigned to deliver a politician's daughter (Kerri Green) from a mental institution. It's been years since I've seen this one, and I don't know if it holds up, but having grown up watching it, I'd love the opportunity to see it again.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Current Cinema 25

12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” is a mixed beast. Building up enormous critical praise for his unnerving long shots and previous career as a visual artist boldly invading the cinema landscape, “12 Years A Slave” looks ravishing even if its topic of slavery is nauseating. Like he did in “Hunger” and “Shame”, McQueen has taken a tough subject and created a lyrical exploration, both in the mournful eyes of star Chiwetel Eijofor and his bracing use of foreground and background- such as a partial lynching that goes on for an uncomfortable amount of time and a whipping, full of swish pans and a roving steadicam that ignites the pain in excruciating real time. But the brilliantly attuned technical stuff aside, I still came away with the feeling that nothing new, introspective or especially interesting had been revealed in this true life tale of a New York black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. I know that sounds harsh, but “12 Years A Slave” is one of those ‘important’ films whose reach feels aimed at embracing that importance rather than an organic experience. A solid film, but one that I’m just not doing cartwheels over.

The Counselor

The second Michael Fassbender film in a week is Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor”. Written by novelist Cormac McCarthy, “The Counselor” is my pick for screenplay of the year. Bleak, black and utterly cruel, “The Counselor” offers no escape for its characters- Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz- to escape the sun stained borders of Texas and Mexico as a drug deal goes terribly wrong. Rambling scenes of dialogue between characters that espouse the nature of guilt and sorrow, huge plot points that seem to be avoided for the sake of avoidance, and an ever shifting alliance between everyone are just a few of the tricks in McCarthy’s hellish void. “The Counselor” has been called misogynistic, nasty and just plain bad…. But I ask what did anyone expect from the creator of such works as “The Road”, “Blood Meridan” and “No Country For Old Men”?


Thinking back to the awfulness of “Bobby”- in which a parade of stars moonlighted in 60’s wardrobe and waded in melodramatic moments- I went into Peter Landesman’s “Parkland” with a bit of apprehension. Though the film does suffer from some of the same moments of grandstanding, “Parkland” still succeeds due to its treatment of marginalized events in the JFK assassination as well as some resonant performances. Based on a script by Landesman, “Parkland” tracks the three days in Dallas, November 1963 from the intimate (James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald's brother) to the generic. There are fascinating moments sprinkled throughout, such as the heartbreaking scene with the Secret Service literally breaking apart Air Force One in order to fit JFK’s casket onto the plane and the reaction of a Dallas cop opening a car door for the First Lady. There are also cringe-worthy moments…. And its this episodic nature that holds “Parkland” back from being something truly spectacular. It also features the ever annoying herky-jerky handheld camera technique that feels like an overcompensation.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Midnight Madness #2- images

The Unholy (1988)- 80's schlock, but highly entertaining.

Haxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)- it's certainly no "Nosferatu".

Night of the Demons 2 (1989)- it's a sequel, and that's all one really needs to know.

The Nude Vampire (1975)- No Halloween would be complete without one Jean Rollin, but even this preposterous, Gallic mannered one is weak.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Midnight Madness #1

V/H/S 2

 Even despite the extreme gimmicky nature of this particular horror anthology, the "V/H/S" franchise so far has been very entertaining. Part 2 is no different.... as a young private detective and his girlfriend break into a house searching for a missing man and discover a cache of weird tapes.... in which they unduly watch. Gaps in logic aside- such as why would one VHS tape feature subtitles???- part 2 is better than the first, its highpoint being Gareth Evans long middle section entitled "Safe Haven". What happens in this episode, as a journalism crew explores the inner workings of a cult in Singapore, goes from terrifying to insane and then just bat shit insane. It's a brilliant, deplorable, jaw dropping exercise in first person mayhem. If nothing else, V/H/S 2 may be my new favorite perennial horror film just because of this section.

The Gorgon

Hammer horror film that matches Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as, basically, equal good guys for a change. In the village of Vandorf, people are dying and being turned to stone. There's talk of an evil entity stalking the nearby woods. Directed by the workmanlike Terence Fisher, "The Gorgon", like all the Hammer films, relies on atmosphere and blue/green mists to convey its sense of impending doom. This film has all that, and a Medusa-like demon. My unapologetic interest in the Medusa myth had me hooked at the beginning, but "The Gorgon" is also an old-fashioned treat.

Deadly Blessing

This 1981 slasher has a few things going for it: an early role for Sharon Stone, an early film by Wes Craven, and lots and lots of gooey, creepy crawling things to add an ick factor. Besides that, its story of Hittite (!) preacher Ernest Borgnine and the presence of young pretty girls in his supposed land is a rote effort. Although for someone like myself with an acute fear of spiders, this is probably the most terrifying film of the three!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Francesco Rosi Files: The Palermo Connection

By the time "The Palermo Connection" was released in 1990, Italian director Francesco Rosi was in a precarious state. His run of international political thrillers ("The Mattei Affair" and "Illustrious Cadavers") and generous remembrances of family ("Three Brothers" and "Christ Stoped At Eboli") had dried up and his previous film, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold", failed to make a splash beyond its Spanish setting... and still nearly impossible to find today. With "The Palermo Connection", there were several things on his side: a big name American cast including Jim Belushi and Mimi Rogers, and the interest in Italian-American relationships stirred up by Francis Ford Coppola's divisive third part of his "Godfather" trilogy. Unfortunately, none of this aided Rosi's film as it came and went in theaters and is still relegated to only shoddy VHS prints today. Being the Francesco Rosi fanboy that I am, I had to weigh in on this (often) misunderstood effort. Jim Belushi is Carmine Bonavia, a city councilman running for New York mayor. Disgusted by the rampant proliferation of drug pushers in and around the city, he makes it his campaign promise to work towards the legalization of drugs. This gives him a rise in the polls, but alienates the mob in the city. When he and his new wife, Mimi Rogers, travel to Italy to visit his relatives, the mob presence creates a tense situation for Carmine and his new bride. 

Positioned somewhere between those late 80's direct-to-video actioners and a more serious-minded exploration of the politics behind the Old World mafia, Rosi's "The Palermo Connection" is still an interesting work. Judging by the vitriolic IMDB comments, people were obviously expecting a fast and furious action film when there are, ironically, only a few scattered gunshots during the entire film.... one of them leaving a lasting impression though. "The Palermo Connection", like most of Rosi's work, is first and foremost a travelogue film.... placing characters in a specific time and place and then spinning out a grand tale that takes into account local customs, dialects and superstitions. Once Belushi and Rogers hit Italy, the film slows down to a crawl where Rosi's gliding camera effortlessly tracks down wind-swept marble balconies and abandoned castle rooms. "The Palermo Connection" is clearly in love with the old country, and Belushi and Rogers are along for the ride. One of the more fascinating asides the film makes is its introduction of a character simply known as the Prince, played by Vittorio Gassman. He tells Rogers that he cannot leave his plush hotel room to take a picture with her. Later, a delegate from the American embassy tells them that the Prince once tried to take on the mob and was given a choice: live in this hotel room for the rest of his life or be killed. Exaggerated as it seems, this type of human banishment feels like an all too real punishment in the Old World.

There are flaws with "The Palermo Connection", though. A hurried denouement doesn't really coexist with  the leisurely pace Rosi developed up until that point. Frankly, Mimi Rogers and even Belushi, in certain scenes, feel miscast. And the central idea of a mayoral candidate leaving the US in the middle of a heated race for a jaunt around Europe seems highly irresponsible. Still, the seamless blend good hearted politics colliding against the criminal enterprise is an idea Rosi has toyed with since the beginning, and while "The Palermo Connection" isn't as sharp as say "Hands Over the City" in that regard, it does deserve a better fate than that-Jim-Belushi-film-no-one-talks-about-anymore.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Halloween Kick Off Double Feature: The Addiction and Ganja and Hess

Bill Gunn's "Ganja and Hess" (1973) and Abel Ferrera's "The Addiction" (1995) are unique "vampire" films, if one's even inclined to label both efforts. I don't know if I'd even lump these films into the horror genre as both works are defiantly independent takes on the idea of the mythological blood-addicted creatures, whether through budgetary constraints or, most likely, their individual director's extreme avant garde prerogative. Both films explore the psychological consequences when an intelligent person (African-American doctor Hess, played by Duane Jones and white undergrad student Lili Taylor) become infected and crave human blood. While Ferrera's vision of this horrific perma-life is carried out in the comfortable, seedy confines of his New York City (and in saturated black and white to dilute the bloodletting), "Ganja and Hess" resides in a more dreamy, classical large manor. Both films are mood films in the purest sense, at times explaining nothing and allowing the angry socio-political views of their authors to overtake the narrative force. "Ganja and Hess" itself is a call to arms for radical independent African American filmmakers of the 70's. Not many people besides Marvin Van Peebles and other blacksploitation artists where seeing their visions on large American screens. Ferrera's "The Addiction" (still not available on home video or DVD) spends more time questioning mass genocide and the Vietnam war than actual 'vampirific' acts. Needless to say, both films had much more on their mind than vampires, and it shows.

Released in 1995, "The Addiction" came at the crest of a wave for Ferrera. Coming off critical acclaim for a string of films including "The King of New York"and "Bad Lieutenant", "The Addiction" is a terrific example of the burgeoning mid 90's indie scene..... a scene that spawned a couple of introspective, well crafted but marginalized vampire films like Michael Almeryda's trancing "Nadja" and Larry Fessenden's "Habit". Starring Lili Taylor, the film opens as she's in the middle of a stressful student year at NYU. Confronted with images of slaughters in Vietnamese villages and constantly thinking about war atrocities as she studies to be a psychiatrist, it's not 5 minutes into the film when she's whisked away down a dark alley and promptly bitten by Annabella Sciorria in a scene that, in my opinion, rightly justifies Ferrera's splendid use of black and white. It's a quick and violent infection, just as if the war atrocities were being inflicted upon her body as well. From there, "The Addiction" is a relatively straight-forward tale of blood lust as Kathleen (Taylor) stalks her campus, eventually infecting her best friend (a young Edie Falco) and teacher (Ferrera regular Paul Calderon). Her bloodlust begins to spiral out of control though, which is one of the many modern inflections Ferrera and screenwriter Nicholas St. John add to the vampire myth. Her psychology background, the writer and director's ever present Catholic guilt, and modern cinema's own need to rationalize and re invent genre in self reflexive ways, drive Kathleen to exorcise the habit overtaking her. In what's probably the best scene in the movie for its quiet acceptance of death, Kathleen lies on a hospital bed and asks for the blinds to be open. Ferrera anchors his camera at the foot of her bed as the sunlight slowly creeps down the wall towards her. Not only is it one of the film's most operatic moments, but it fits so nicely into the Ferrera mold of self immolation and mythic redemption.

"Ganja and Hess" also features a self imposed act of exorcism. Starring Duane Jones as Dr. Hess, the film explains through opening title cards that doctor Hess was studying ancient tribal mysteries when he comes into the possession of a dagger that is "diseased". Hess takes in assistant George (played by director Bill Gunn himself), a mentally unstable man who eventually stabs Hess with the dagger, "wherein he becomes addicted and could not be killed or could not die". It's in these careful framing words that director Gunn sets up the implications for something larger than blood lust. After killing George and stuffing his body in a basement freezer, Ganja, George's wife, returns to the States and takes up residence with Doctor Hess, awaiting the outcome of her husband's "disappearance". She and Hess fall in love, although it's quiet the sadistic relationship. Ganja, played by Marlene Clark, takes pleasure in insulting Hess's butler and promptly throws her weight around the house. Even after finding her late husband's body in the cellar, she marries Hess and establishes quiet a unique marriage.

Like "The Addiction", "Ganja and Hess" is an art film first. A victim of its time (early 70's funk cinema and Times Square exploitation), "Ganja and Hess" feels, looks and sounds cheap.... all things that filmmaker Gunn makes up for in dreamy narrative. Images of the tribe bleed into real life with droning chant-like sounds.... jump cuts establish no rhythm and force us to recognize the interaction between people quickly, and the blood that Hess so craves is often orangish tomato juice. But its the ideas that give "Ganja and Hess" its creative power. Like "The Addiction", this is one way to substitute the universal struggle of addiction into an easily identifiable means of expression. Whether that addiction is substance based or the paralyzing fear of mass destruction and the apocalypse, both Kathleen and Dr. Hess are just inquisitive, educated people inoculated by the dangers of our time. Separated by 22 years, both films create a dazzling double feature that feels almost interchangeable. In "Ganja and Hess", one scene has them lying in bed together when Dr. Hess asks "do you think I'm still psychotic?" Her reply of "everyone has their freaky side, baby...." would fit right at home in the punk rock nihilism milieu of Abel Ferrera's cinema.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Current Cinema 24


Denis Villanueva’s “Prisoners” certainly deserves some admiration for spinning a tale that’s as black and brooding as a Hollywood funded film can get. With an all star cast- yet sometimes one can feel the overwrought big acting moments- it’s a film that ponders the twisted morality behind vigilante justice and anchors itself perilously close to the procedural grittiness of “Zodiac”. When two girls go missing in a small Pennsylvania suburb, fathers Hugh Jackman and Terence Howard find themselves out for blood while local detective Jake Gyllenhall has to not only fend off their violent tendencies, but unravel the mystery as well. Like “Mystic River”, ‘Prisoners” is more interested in the volatile dynamics of how grief perpetuates moral sadism in the face of a tragedy than the murders themselves, which becomes increasingly clear when the film stumbles towards its climax of neat resolution and killer unmasking. It’s here where the film falters a bit, undoing some of its brooding momentum, yet “Prisoners” is still a strong film. With cinematography by Roger Deakins that ranks as one of the best looking films of the year, full of low angle shots through doorways and crisp tracking shots, it also features one of the most bracing scenes of the year as cop Gyllenhall races through a rainstorm to reach the local hospital. The mixture of sepia-tinted nighttime shots with a camera that seems to be mounted somewhere up above the car and the quiet interior as his siren flashes blue lights across his blood-stained face add up to a sequence that had me holding my breath.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

The nostalgic 70’s western noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a derivative effort, but a tremendously well made and well-meaning one. Written and directed by David Lowery (whom I had the pleasure to exchange words with over the years through his now defunct blog), his first full length film is a throwback film of the highest order, evoking everything from “Bonnie and Clyde” to the mumble core movement which he’s been a mainstay in for several years now. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the film opens with their separation after the lovers-on-the-lam are arrested and Affleck is sent to prison. He eventually escapes, and the rest of the film charts his desperate attempts to get back to her. Also circling in her life is local cop Ben Foster, in what is certainly the best performance in the film and probably of his intense career. All low-key and humble, Foster personifies the small town sheriff in touching and accurate ways. And those descriptions could ft the entire film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a quiet but revelatory film that dispenses plot in whispers and charged glances. Yet Lowery also understands the language of violence and dread…. both factors that play out in superbly realized and edited sequences. Filmed in and around my own stomping grounds of Central Texas (as well as parts of Louisiana), “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” feels like an authentic Texas film as well, maximizing the droning sounds of cicadas that flourish every sundown here in Texas and creating baroque symmetry out of stark, disheveled wooden barns that one often stumbles across. Yes, I’m completely in love with this film.


Ron Howard’s re-creation of the 1970’s racing feud between hot-shit Formula 1 racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is all fumes and no real spark….. including the character driven moments that give us no appreciation or understanding of the men themselves. “Rush” barrels through its emotional build-up like the racing scenes, which are competently filmed, yet fail to provide any depth behind the atmosphere. For example, Olivia Wilde is given a thankless role as Hunt’s first wife. When they separate, it feels like a narrative plot point checked off. Just a generic effort.

Don Jon

I'm in the middle on Joseph Gordon Levitt's directing debut. At one level, it's refreshing to see a young actor (like James Franco) attempting something adventurous like "Don Jon", a film that is focused in its worldview of a generally unaccepted mainstream subject- watching porn. And for the first half of the film, Levitt does an adept job at utilizing editing to convey the titillating aspects- at least for men. But then, "Don Jon" turns a bit inconsequential. It also follows the now ubiquitous structure of indie filmmaking- establish a shot routine and then continue to follow that thread throughout the whole film... overhead shot of Levitt making his bed, walking up the steps of his church and the lateral pan across the faces of his family. It's effective, but safe.While Levitt does eventually tread into some ambigious territory (featuring a nice, awkward supporting turn by Julianne Moore), the feeling of "safe" hovers over the entire film.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Asghar Farhadi Files: Beautiful City

Asghar Farhadi's second feature, while remaining true to his local worldview of the ever-shifting moral dilemmas that arise between people in crisis, also carries an extremely ironic title. "Beautiful City" derives its name from the small juvenile prison where we first meet Ala (Babak Ansari) as he helps celebrate the birthday of fellow inmate and best friend Akbar (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh). Akbar is none too happy, because due to this being his eighteenth birthday, he'll soon be transported to the adult prison where he'll serve out his sentence. Upon release, due to a more minor crime, Ala makes it his mission to free his friend by soliciting his release through the father of the girl he murdered. What follows in "Beautiful City" is the relentless and confusing dynamics that arise between Ala, Akbar's sister Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti) and the father (Faramarz Gharibian) as questions of guilt, forgiveness and the convoluted bureaucratic process of Islamic law.

As a sophomore film, "Beautiful City" is a huge leap forward for Farhadi, both visually and thematically. Not only does the film make wonderful use of the city's arching doorways and shadows, but the slum where Ala meets (and eventually falls for) Firoozeh juts up against a set of railroad tracks that serve as the metaphor for the desire to escape. The film's final scene, ending on a wonderfully ambiguous note, also emphasizes the dreamy atmosphere of two worlds colliding. Taking as its theme the idea of redemption- even though we barely meet or gain any semblance of empathy for Akbar- will also become a founding principle in later Farhadi films. The commerce of ideas and words over action, as Ala and Firoozeh navigate the careful circumference of human emotions with a murdered girl's family, trying to reason with them and save his friend's life, expertly displays Farhadi's prerogative. In one brave scene, Ala and Firoozeh have a conversation in a restaurant, where Firoozeh promplty lights up and begins smoking a cigarette. It may be a commonplace image in 99% of our movies today, but I can't recall a single moment in any Iranian film that defies the subjugative structure of a society so plainly. While Farhadi (and for that matter the whole new wave of Iranian filmmakers) owe a debt of gratitude to Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi is also one of the few dragging Iranina cinema into the modern.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Posters I Love


Friday, September 20, 2013

Musical Interlude

One of the best songs from one of the year's very best albums.... Volcano Choir's "Repave". And if you love you some weird, antique found footage videos performed to the best electro-pop and chill wave bands, then daviddeanburkhart's you tube channel is the best.

Just hooked on the new Zola Jesus offering.....

a bit trippier than I usually like, but damn this band just puts me in a groove.....

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Last Few Films I've Seen, August Edition

1. Playing With Fire (1975)- Oh Godard, what hath you wrought? But seriously, director-writer Alain Robbe Grillet was doing this type of cinematic playfulness long before Godard. As the renowned writer of "Last Year At Marienbad", Robbe-Grillet's directorial output is quite.... risky. I've been able to track down several of his films lately (hardly released on home video, surviving in scratchy VHS prints), and "Playing With Fire" seemed about as good as any a place to start. Starring Phillipe Noiret as a rich man who has his daughter (possibly?) kidnapped, Jean Louis Trintignant shows up as the detective who tries to track her down. No one can be trusted, though, as actors appear as one character, then re-appear as someone else later. This theater of doubles becomes increasingly confusing.... people speak directly to the camera analyzing the screenplay so far.... sounds and screeching tires serve as cuts and no one is ever really in any danger. It's all mildly amusing and recommended for surreal 70's French avant gardism.

2. Wild Rovers (1971)- Strong comedy/western from Blake Edwards that tries to reinvent the genre through two no name cowhands (Ryan O Neal and William Holden) who suddenly decide to escape their boring life by robbing a bank. How they go about it in unassuming fashion sticks to the light heartedness of Edwards' obsessions. There is an especially gruesome and shocking outburst of violence towards the end that magnifies the ruthlessness of the Old West... just so we don't forget.

3. Closed Circuit (2013)- Eric Bana and the lovely, delicious Rebecca Hall are two lawyers caught up in British terrorism and government conspiracies. Filmmaker John Crowley, who previously directed the wonderful indie "Boy A", generates zero intensity in this placid, paint-by-numbers thriller. It honestly feels like a film that's been sitting on the shelf for 8-9 years.

4. Antiviral (2012)- Yes, Brandon Cronenberg could easily be mistaken for his father in this, his debut film. So many of the themes are prevalent, yet "Antiviral" lacks the oomph of papa's work. I honestly have to ask... has the charge to satirize and dive bomb our nauseating obsession with reality and reality-driven television become a lame obsession of its own? Here, a young doctor (played by Caeb Landry Jones) works at the mysterious Lucas Clinic where people pay to have the illnesses of their favorite stars injected into their own bodies. Black marketeering, shady guys in all black suits and lots of spit-up blood become the economy. Brandon Cronenberg frames all of this against solid white interiors or non-descript Canadian streets (again making daddy proud) but I found the whole effort a colossal bore. And as the lead, Landy Jones is such an alienating, weaselly character I was never rooting for him. If that was Cronenberg's intention, then kudos.

5. Sapphire (1959)- Basil Dearden loves him some controversy. Sometimes it works- as in his thriller about homosexuality with "Victim"- but other times it doesn't. Sadly, "Sapphire" is one of those. A young girl is murdered and the film tracks the investigation as two detectives learns she was half-black and the sticky subject of racism comes into play. Unlike his previous films, Dearden allows too much stiff upper British lip to come into play, effectively watering down the spicy aspects of his story. I still give him and his production company credit for tackling taboo subjects in the late 50's and early 60's.

6. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2010)- Utterly fascinating documentary about this urban mystery. Like a great mystery novel, this documentary doggedly pursues all aspects of it, raises some debatable suspects and sheds light on the unmistakable possibilities that exist in the obsessive human mind when we latch onto something so strongly. There's some discussion on whether this whole film is made up or not, and it only reinforces the rabbit holes of the mystery. Just great stuff.

7. A Band Called Death (2013)- Another highly compulsive documentary that also, could be, the documentation of an urban myth... this time the idea that three African American brothers in Detroit during the early 70's may be the first and most unknown influential punk band ever. Just watching this film floods one with emotions, first as it shows how something so good could get lost so easily, and then secondly as the brothers music is discovered in an attic and resurrected on adoring modern day crowds. One of the best viewing moments of the year for me.

8. The World's End (2013)- With all the hype of Edgar Wright's third collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there had to be some let down. "The World's End" tries to do for weird space invasion films what their other efforts did for genre films like zombies and 70's buddy cops, but doesn't come close. Sadly, the first half drags quite a bit and the character's various transformations from start to finish aren't believable. The tendency has always been there, and director Wright seems to be conforming to the straight-on fanboy filmmaker rather than the go-for-broke agitator that created such honest humor in "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead".

Sunday, September 08, 2013

70's Bonanza: Diary of a Mad Housewife

Filmed and released in 1970, Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife" sits comfortably in the middle of his two other films that devote themselves to the mid life crisis of their protagonists. First there was Burt Lancaster and his allegorical swim home (or swim away, depending how you look at it) in "The Swimmer", perhaps Perry's most overlooked but strongest effort of the 60's. Five years later, in 1972, Tuesday Weld literally melts away on-screen as the wife of a Hollywood filmmaker floating despondently through her sunny L.A. days in "Play It As It Lays". In "Diary of a Mad Housewife", Carrie Snodgress not only seethes with hatred for her husband (an excellently devilish Richard Benjamin), but this hatred drives her into the arms of young, handsome writer Frank Langella. This smoldering trilogy not only exemplifies Perry's penchant for moral confusion and emotional disconnectivity in his films, but it paints a marvelously vivid snapshot of America's growing disillusionment during that time period.

Opening and closing on the face of Carrie Snodgress in drastically different ways, everything in between is especially violent, metaphysically speaking. As Tina (Snodgress), her hum-drum upper middle class life is quickly documented through the endless preening of her husband and his ludicrous demands for social status and child rearing. Never speaking a dissatisfying tone towards him, instead resorting to passive indifference, her break with her life comes in the form of novelist George (Frank Langella) when they meet at a party. An affair begins, but even that extra-marital scream doesn't fulfill Tina. Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry color George in much the same light as Tina's husband.... dashing and handsome, yes, but just as self-involved and nasty as the person she lives with and puts up with day in and day out. Like Tuesday Weld in "Play It As It Lays", we sort of root for her just because everyone around her is so terrible. It's only during the final scene does the film's title come into clarification,and even that supposedly cathartic moment is clouded by the selfishness of everyone involved.

If all of this sounds dismal, it's not. Perry and wife Eleanor are masters of scraping the surface and revealing the hollowness behind people... its just always sad there's one clear-eyed woman (or man) to observe this. Snodgress does seem to eventually liberate herself. It's an obvious but astute metaphor, but the mention of a deadly plant virus that wipes out the vineyard Tina's husband invests in is apt. "Diary of a Mad Housewife" explores the rottenness that bubbles up slowly not only via the wonderful performance of Carrie Snodgress, but the re-growth that's always possible.

"Diary of a Mad Housewife" isn't available on DVD, only on OOP VHS sources, which is a shame.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

On "The Grandmaster"

While I was one of the very few championing filmmaker Wong Kar Wai's last film (and his first completely American production) "My Blueberry Nights", if nothing else that implied failure must have soured him on the movie business for several years. To add insult to injury, the early buzz on his new film "The Grandmaster" was that producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein assisted Wai in making cuts to the final product... a fact that seems to suggest there are 3 possible versions floating around out there. Still, with all that hoopla and diversion settled, "The Grandmaster" emerges as a ravishing film and a buoyant entry into the woozy, dream-like canon of Wong Kar Wai.

Vaguely about the life of legendary martial arts teacher Ip Man (Tony Leung), "The Grandmaster" is a sensual and aural feast, timed to Kar Wai's penchant for several things including the slow motion pan, unrequited love, and life observed through the window pane. This is probably the most mainstream art film ever released, as judged by the groaning at my screening when subtitles went unrelenting after the first scene. Audiences are expecting a Jet Li-like actioner, and they're getting something altogether different (and better).Yet beyond the action (which is supreme... one wondrous set piece after another), "The Grandmaster" hones in on the relationship of Ip Man and Gong Er, played by Zhang Yiyi and their relationship through the years of civil war and Japanese invasion. In fact, "The Grandmaster" basically deserts Ip Man himself during the final third of the film, revealing the turmoils of Gong Er and her battle to retain her family's good name. At one point, I begin to imagine the film's title didn't belong to Ip Man but Gong Er herself. Like all of Wong Kar Wai's films, the central idea eventually boils down to a man and a woman navigating their hearts through the travails of time and life.
"The Grandmaster" is the reason I love going to the cinema. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of sight, sound and heart.

Friday, August 30, 2013

An Appreciation: Nicholas Ray

They Live By Night (1948) ***½- The first images of Ray’s debut film- the face of two young lovers looking into each other’s eyes with the scroll of “this man and this woman were never properly introduced to this world” followed by a long overhead tracking shot as a car races down a dusty road- are certainly magnanimous introductions to a long career. It’s hard to top that initial energy, yet “They Live By Night” maintains its trendsetting narrative throughout as Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) find each other and then spend the rest of the film on the run from the law. Just terrific stuff.

Knock On Any Door (1949) **½- Ray’s sophomore film is most interesting for the way it sketches out so many of his later themes, predominately the idea of his teenager punk-rock attitude. As the lead youngster says numerous times while on trial for murder, “live fast and leave a beautiful corpse”. Humphrey Bogart is stable as the defense attorney pleading the young man’s case, and overall the film is an average cautionary tale about the injustices of the poor alongside New York’s lower east side.

A Woman’s Secret (1949) **½ - Two women argue and then a shot goes off. One of them lies bleeding and hurt, and from there, “A Woman’s Secret” tells the jealous back story of the two women and their criss-crossing paths as singers. Like so many of the films from the 40’s, Ray is obviously having a great time with the subtext of lesbianism and pink jealousy resulting in murder while Maureen O Hara and especially Gloria Grahame raise the film above its pedestrian antics. Available on specialized DVD

In A Lonely Place (1950) **- With this film and “A Woman’s Secret”, Ray made the jump from nervy genre films about disaffected youth to the social comforts of Hollywood stardom. Let me begin by saying I love Gloria Graham and am glad she’s the muse of Ray in a couple films, shining through every scene with sexuality and grace. And what she sees in Humphrey Bogart besides lazy plot contraptions is beyond me, which is partly why “In A Lonely Place” fails as a film for me. Even before he’s suspected of murdering a young girl, Bogart is an insufferable douche, prone to violent outbursts and an air of entitlement just because he’s a Hollywood screenwriter. Full of witty late 40’s one-liners and come backers, I just don’t see the timelessness of “In A Lonely Place”.

Born To Be Bad (1950) **½- The story- Joan Fontaine’s whirling dervish of a sexual tornado, stealing the love of her cousin’s life- is secondary to the playful nature of Ray’s mise en scene. One knows they’re in trouble when good girl Joan Leslie trips over the suitcase of Fontaine in the opening moments and it all goes downhill from there. Not available on DVD.

Flying Leathernecks (1951) *½- Ray’s continued success with scoring a-list names carries on here with John Wayne as the very unpopular commander of a squadron during World War 2. It’s a varied effort, though, with very little sympathy set up for any of the men and exhibiting way too much rah-rah attitude. Robert Ryan, as the anti-Wayne character here both in tolerance for discipline and outlook on life, serves as a meaty juxtaposition to the Wayne persona, but that’s sadly the most interesting aspect of this relatively ordinary film.

On Dangerous Ground (1952) ****- For my money, Ray’s first legitimate masterpiece. Again starring Robert Ryan, “On Dangerous Ground” breathlessly swerves between two genres of film, beginning as a prototypical film noir (complete with rain soaked streets and a darkness that never seems to end) and ending up as a psychological chase film among the snow covered hills of northern California. Sent to work on an out-of-town case after his frenzied, violent assault on several possible criminals, Ryan is terrific as the loose canon cop who finds some solace and self-restraint in the wilderness when he meets blind woman Ida Lupino during a chase for someone who killed a young girl. A single viewing is not enough to tabulate all the swirling undercurrents of psychology here, and Ray’s direction is taut, focused and magisterial. Several images, of two men hunting another across a snow-swept mountain terrain at dusk, are stellar and establish Ray as the premier visualist of the 50’s, both in outward narrative and interior monologue.

The Lusty Men (1952) ***- The blueprint for so many later films, as older, wiser man (Robert Mitchum) takes a younger guy (Arthur Kennedy) under his wings and tries to teach him about life… and the rodeo. Although released in the early 50’s, the most startling aspect of “The Lusty Men” is its already antiquated feel about the old west coming to a close that so many later films yearn to encapsulate but rarely do. Memorable character study whose tension derives from the triumvirate of Kennedy, Mitchum and Susan Hayward.

 Johnny Guitar (1954) ****- The first third of “Johnny Guitar” features some of Ray’s most flawless filmmaking… and the rest ain’t that bad either. Nominally a western, “Johnny Guitar” (like so many of Ray’s films) defies easily classification and weaves a hallucinogenic trail between genre. There are so many startling aspects of “Johnny Guitar”- the soundtrack that hits a crescendo like a horror film when a group of people barge through a saloon door carrying a dead man…. The impeccable framing of a dead man sprawled out before a group of people dressed in black…. the first third that features a series of emotional and physical standoffs… and the fevered performances of Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. The story, which really takes a backseat to all the psychological undercurrents, deals with a drifter named Johnny (Sterling Hayden) who arrives at Crawford’s saloon and becomes embroiled in a bitter emotional dispute. Like Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” released two years earlier, “Johnny Guitar” would make for a frightening double feature on how to destroy the western genre and create a brilliant hybrid.

Run For Cover (1955) **- More solidly established as a “western” than “Johnny Guitar”, “Run For Cover” does keep one on their toes as the story shifts from outlaw justice gone awry (the tendency to pit stoic man against ruthless society once again) to chase-em-and-shoot-em ordinariness with ease. Jimmy Cagney befriends young man John Derek and after a case of mistaken identity, the obligatory quasi father/son duo become sheriff and marshal of a small town. Their idyllic setting (including new found love between Cagney and Viveca Lindfors) is soon shattered when real outlaws come to town and the financial/moral stakes are raised. What’s most perceptive about this rather lackluster Ray film is the shifting bond between Cagney and Derek as outside forces constantly tug at their relationship. It’s a favorite Ray theme, explored to better depth in other films. Without this, “Run For Cover” would be a nondescript mid 50’s B western. Not available on DVD.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955) ****- Without recognizing this film’s obvious reputation on film history, “Rebel Without A Cause” is Ray’s most sensitive film to date, enticing awkwardly brilliant performances from its young cast (Dean and Natalie Wood especially). Mixing up the hot rod rebellion sect and effectively crowning a generation of disaffected youth in one moody performance, James Dean soars high but it’s the masked relationship between him and Sal Mineo that effectively oozes off the screen now. Oedipal parental relationships…. Abandonment issues…. All types of confused psychological traps are set for Ray’s youth, carried out against a Technicolor backdrop that draws a thundering climax at one of cinema’s most famous Los Angeles settings where everyone can look at the stars but rarely escape their own earthbound floundering. And oh my was Natalie Wood a beauty.

Hot Blood (1956) *½- Ray’s first attempt at a musical, even though there’s only a sparse amount of singing and dancing. Yet, right from the opening frame, vibrant color and choreographed movements of people along a busy street signify something more ebullient than the standard drama. Sadly, that dramatic narrative feels clumsy and secondary to Ray’s attention to mise-en-scene. Farley Granger and Jane Russell are part of two large gypsy families placed into an arranged marriage, and from there nothing ever quite works out. The romance between Russell and Granger alternates between a sly slapstick of sorts and straight discontent and Granger, especially, lacks any real charisma as the leading man. A noble, if not interesting, failure made all the more frustrating by Ray’s technical deficiencies in post production by not being able to completely edit the film for himself. Not available on DVD.

Bigger Than Life (1956) ***- Initially panned upon release and then resuscitated by the cahiers du cinema crowd, “Bigger Than Life” is far more interesting for its visual impacts rather than its fevered performances. James Mason is all brow and bravado as an initially meek mannered schoolteacher violently changed by a prescription drug and aggressive towards wife and son. Within its current blu-ray form, Ray’s fluid direction are stunning, slowly casting shadows over the heads of his actors as the film progresses towards its psychotic climax. “Bigger Than Life”, released squarely in the mid 50’s, is most memorable for the way in which it inverts the radioactive horror genre as an interior analysis of the nuclear family. Still, the real coup here is Ray’s impeccable direction.

The True Story of Jesse James (1957) ***- Revisionist takes on America’s most famous outlaw, Jesse James, range from the intimate (Fritz Lang’s “The Return of Frank James”) to the mythical (Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”). Ray’s take on the outlaw drama blends both. Portraying Jesse like one of his neglected, misunderstood teens, Ray attempts to give his life of crime a rationalized beginning (violence against his family). Darting back and forth in time and expertly fracturing the doomed Northfield Minnesota raid at the beginning and ending of the film with vastly different understandings of the crime, “The True Story of Jesse James” is rousing, almost experimental, filmmaking for the mid 50’s. Even though this is widely considered a paycheck for Ray (completing the film as part of a studio deal), it’s still a bracing example of the auteur in him. The only fault is found in Robert Wagner’s too polished, handsome performance as Jesse.


Bitter Victory (1958) ***½ - Unlike Samuel Fuller, Ray’s war film- his first since the jingoistic John Wayne vehicle “Flying Leathernecks”- explores the psyche of war rather than the muscular aspect. Richard Burton is fantastic as the lieutenant clashing with his peer officer Curd Jurgens during a military campaign in the North African desert. Friction is established early on, both in the varying temperament of the soldiers and the fact they both love the same woman. “Bitter Victory” doesn’t shy away from being a recommended entry into the war genre (especially a fabulous set piece when the soldiers silently raid a German headquarters building) but it does tackle the issue from a different perspective. Like later films by John Boorman (“Hell In the Pacific”) and even Brian DePalma (“Causalities of War”), Ray’s drama is more attuned to the breakdown of human interaction and complete loss of our true self during wartime. Even though we hate Jurgens throughout “Bitter Victory”, it’s a film that makes us wonder if we wouldn’t do the same thing.


Wind Across the Everglades (1958) **- Respected as a bit of forebearer to the ecological thriller, “Wind Across the Everglades” is probably Ray’s most experimental film to date, mixing straight drama with unique location setting and snippets of documentary-like footage of wildlife. Yet having said all that, the film still failed to completely connect with me as new boy in south Miami Christopher Plummer does battle against poacher Burl Ives and his motley crew. There are some interesting turns towards the end as Plummer and Ives square off and their fierce battle of wills and ideals jettisons in unexpected directions, but its not enough to save a very preachy effort. Not available on DVD.

Party Girl (1958) ***- I understand why the French Nouvelle Vague love this film so much. Ray's camera practically makes love to Cyd Charisse and she does her slinky best to give it right back. Almost too sumptuous at times, the film becomes kinetic during her dance scenes and then settles into a pretty damn good gangster flick with windows and doors opening up to splendid painted backdrops.


The Savage Innocents (1960) *½- At first glance, “The Savage Innocents” fits so nicely into Ray’s ongoing themes of culture clash and the miscommunication between outsiders, but in execution and tone, the film is one of his weakest. Documenting the life of an Eskimo hunter (Anthony Quinn) and his survival as western influences slowly encroach on his frozen tundra, the most boggling aspect of the film is Quinn’s performance….. Something so odd and badly interpreted that it verges on condescending. Secondly, the narration, which attempts to describe the mating rituals or hunting habits of this sect of people reads like a school play. Lastly, the visual look, combining English studio sets and location filming, rarely convey a strong sense of anything realistic. A bit of a total mess. Available on region 2 DVD.


King of Kings (1961) ****- Certainly the most visually evocative of all Hollywood’s Biblical representations, Ray’s vision of the life of Christ is immensely powerful. From the startling overhead crane shot as one king is dethroned…. Or the miracles of Jesus shown through shadow, or especially the hanging of Jesus on the cross in a shot later cribbed by Martin Scorsese for his own Jesus telling, Ray’s epic exceeds its bloated expectations of big Hollywood (including overture, interlude etc) and remains a true auteurist work. As Jesus, Jeffrey Hunter is workable, but it’s the ensemble cast and Philip Yordan’s morally ambitious script that gives “King of Kings” its weight, especially in the roles of Roman soldier Lucius (Ron Randall) and John the Baptist (Robery Ryan), two men who work at the periphery of Jesus and provide a sensitive perception of his time.


55 Days At Peking (1963) ****- The late career epics of Nicholas Ray really hit the spot. After “King of Kings”, Ray stayed with mega financier Samuel Bronston and produced “55 Days At Peking”, about the siege of the Boxer Rebellion against the Allied embassies in the early 1900’s. Rumored to have collapsed on set and not even finish shooting some scenes, it’s debatable how much others influenced the project, but regardless, I found the film to be an emotional knockout as well as featuring many of the common Ray undercurrents. Starring Charlton Heston as the American military commander and David Niven as the stiff British upper lip who trenches in the Allied forces against the rebels, “55 Days At Peking” is mesmerizing in its action set pieces and even stronger when it focuses on the human bonds. Heston (an actor I never really “got”) gives an amazing and authentic performance, his steel veneer melting a bit when faced with the love of a woman (Ava Gardner providing Ray’s favorite theme of outsider love rendering redemption) and an orphan child. This would be Ray’s final commercial film, but it’s a terrific commercial film all the same.

We Can’t Go Home Again (1976) ***- Created as a communal effort with his students whom he was teaching at NYU Binghamton, “We Can’t Go Home Again” is an experimental and non-linear swan song for Ray. Eschewing any real plot, allowing the students to film and dramatize certain aspects of their life, and featuring strong hippie ties as the kids talk about Vietnam, shave their beards off or generally complain about the Establishment, the film itself is less important than the process. Culled, edited and shown for over 9 years (beginning in 1971 and edited until the day he died in 1979), “We Can’t Go Home Again” is a decidedly individual way for the consistent loner to go out. Since so many of his projects were faced with studio interruption and corporate noise, it’s only fitting that his final work would be so extreme. After facing the camera so bravely, riddled with cancer in Wim Wenders’ “Lightning Over Water” (1980), one can surmise Ray was never afraid of challenging assumptions and this “student” film may be his most personal after an illustrious career.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Current Cinema 23


Going into Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium”, I didn’t expect to discover the best film of the summer, but that’s exactly what happened. Like his previous film, “District 9”, Blomkamp has stretched and re-invigorated the dystopian sci-fi genre with ease. Yes, it is a message movie and one that inherently beats you over the head with its strictly drawn characterizations of good and evil (and oh my is off-the-grid-military-man Kruger played by Sharlto Copley downright bad), but its populist fable between the “haves” and the “have nots” also incredibly moving and aggressive. Damon is the savior figure as he tries to get to the aforementioned title place where machines cure all sickness and Blomkamp stages the action set pieces and bone-crushing fight scenes expertly…. Including one explosion on board a ship that serves as a delicious plot turner where doppelgangers are spawned and the surprise factor is cranked up to 11. One of the most entertaining, eye popping and downright best films of the year.

Blue Jasmine

Lots of hyperbole has been spread about Woody Allen’s most recent dramatic effort, “Blue Jasmine”, aimed largely on the shoulders of Cate Blanchett’s performance, but I found the film to be an insufferable bore. Blanchett is Jasmine, the boozy, nerve-wracked and insecure leading lady whose Park Avenue life has collapsed after husband Alec Baldwin was indicted for embezzlement, but there’s no real arch or soul beneath this wrecked existence. I wouldn’t want to be in a room with this woman for five seconds let alone the two hour running time Allen provides here. After a move to San Francisco where she lives with her sister (Sally Hawkins) and faced with the poverty and banality of everyday life, “Blue Jasmine” is basically a character study of someone drastically forced to face a culture clash. Surfacing the same ideas as “Elysium” about the tenuous fine line between the privileged and unprivileged, it’s commendable for Allen to revert back to straight psychological drama as he did with “Interiors” or “Another Woman”, but “Blue Jasmine” left me cold even when we’re supposed to feel something, anything for Blanchett as her pivotal final moment reveals a solitary broken woman.

A Hijacking

The first of two pirates-hijacking-a-ship film this year (followed by Tom Hanks and “Captain Phillips” later this year), Tobias Lind Holm’s “A Hijacking” is a tense procedural of the event covered by all angles. As the cook on board the ship, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) is the emotional center of the story, thrust into the role of mediator and provider while the pirates negotiate with the ship’s company. Back home, company CEO Peter (Soren Malling) allows his financial hubris to color his belief that he can do moral and economic bartering with the pirates. What’s most impressive about “A Hijacking” is its ability to code all the characters with varying degrees of believability. Peter is basically a good, decent man trying to do the right thing to save both his employees and his company. Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) the main negotiator for the pirates, goes through a variety of character shifts as one initially feels one thing for him and he turns out to be something completely different later. One feels for everyone in this story and when the emotional outburst comes over the dead line of a telephone call, Mikkel’s passion is felt through the screen. A very good work.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cinema Obscura: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself

After my exhaustive retrospective of filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa a few years ago, the one title I could never get my hands on was his ultra obscure comedy/crime series "Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself". Thankfully, that problem has been remedied.

Nestled in the mid 90's when Kurosawa was heavily involved in creating diptych crime stories such as "The Serpent's Path" and "Eyes of the Spider" and especially his "Revenge" double feature, "Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself" was filmed and released for the home video market in Japan. The idea, six variations of life surrounding two low level yakuza gophers, expound on Kurosawa's fascination with subverting the same idea and story in a wildly divergent manner. Barely seen nowadays, his six part series obviously holds a soft spot in his heart, as Kurosawa himself told a website called EG in 2012 the following: "It makes me enormously happy to have someone talk to me about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself. As I’ve just said, I really enjoyed making this series. If everything had been shot for the home video market, for me these are the true films in my career. From the time the series was made fifteen years ago, no one in Japan speaks about it, in good or bad terms. I’d never been interviewed about it or seen any analysis of it. It practically moves me to know that we can talk about Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself in France. It’s really while making these films for video that I finally understood that I was capable of making films as independently as my subsequent feature films, such as Cure [1997] or Charisma [1999]."

Like many series, "Suit Yourself Or Shoot Yourself" creates varying levels of satisfaction. Some episodes are much better than others and, save for a few cinematic tricks here or there, the films themselves are mainly devoid of identifying auteurist characteristics. The only constant factor, stars Sho Aikawa (long time Kurosawa collaborator) and Koyo Maeda get into various trouble and then wiggle their way out of it. Part a comedy routine but mostly just riffs on the yakuza genre, "Suit Yourself and Shoot Yourself" is most interesting for the episodic pit stops Kurosawa is now infamous for making- including his latest prject entitled "Penance" which was originally released as a five part film, but will most likely be edited down when and if it reaches these shores....which begs the question will we ever see the original version? Broken down by each episode:

Part 1 The Heist- Yuji (Sho Aikawa) and Kosaku (Koyo Maeda) are low level gangsters who both fall for the same girl, a teacher masquerading at night as a bar hostess. Not only does their relationship with this duplicitous woman bring them into drug smuggling and extortion, but a comical encounter with the local yakuza boss. As a Kurosawa film, “The Heist” is fairly straight forward, although one use of ultra slow motion hearkens to the slow-burn aesthetics that so heightened the tension in certain horror films such as “Pulse” and “Séance”. It’s also highly entertaining as this first pilot episode seems to be aimed squarely at the Godard period of “Band of Outsiders”, using the crime genre as a washboard for visual comedy.


Part 2 The Escape- Yuji and Kosaku are again entangled with the local yakuza when they inadvertently help a shy young man with his relationship problems- namely his involvement with two daughters of a mob boss. Less comically inspired than “The Heist”, “The Escape” feels even less like a Kurosawa film.


Part 3 The Loot- After Yuji and Kosaku inadvertently kill an old man they were sent to pick up, his granddaughter- as well as a host of other people including the cops and local yakuza- are hot on their tail as the secrets to a treasure map may be in their hands. Gaining some momentum with this third episode, Kurosawa’s deadpan variation on this Abbott and Costello pair of guys loosens up the energy and reveals some momentum for the series.


Part 4 The Gamble- Whether its Kurosawa and his band of actors becoming more comfortable in their interchangeable roles or sheer luck is unclear, but “The Gamble” ranks as the best of the series so far. Kurosawa’s direction feels less small-screen inspired and more cinematic, featuring some wonderfully inspired lateral pans and a story that’s less burdened by actual plot and moves along at a brisk clip. Yes, a lost suitcase of money and the local yakuza tracking it down are plot contrivances, but for the first time, Yuji and Kosaku are relegated to the sidelines a bit more and the comedy of the series is genuine.


Part 5 The Nouveau Rich- the weakest of the series, “The Nouveau Rich” leans much too often on physical slapstick comedy (such as the repeated motif of a yakuza boss keeping a man on a leash as his pit bull attack dog) to ever fully congeal as something other than a lark. The minimal plot- as the duo get mixed up with a girl who finds a trunk load full of heroin- also grates on the nerves as very little happens.

Part 6 The Hero- ending on a high note, "The Hero" is the best of the six films and one that staunchly looks forward to Kurosawa's heyday of the late 90's. Spinning a tale that consistently subverts good and bad and featuring a bleak, nihilistic ending that echoes Kurosawa's penchant for societal collapse and emotional decay, Yuji and Kosaku become involved with a brother and sister who want to drive a local yakuza gang member out of their neighborhood. How this final episode plays out, and the gaps in time it suddenly presents the viewer make one yearn for more.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Current Cinema 22

The Conjuring

James Wan’s “The Conjuring” carries forward his ideas on the emphasis of atmospheric, naturalized scares rather than the now accepted delivery of in your face gore and over-the-top jumps. While I’ve been a huge supporter of Wan’s previous effort in this vein, “Insidious”, I was less impressed by “The Conjuring” even though it amps down the horror even more than that old school thriller. I should have really loved “The Conjuring”, but I came away only slightly impressed with it. The film documents the real life haunting of an East Coast family (why do all these 70’s haunting happen on the East Coast?) and the entrance of Ed and Leslie Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), infamous clairvoyant and demon hunter who assist the family in trying to rid their home (and souls) of a devious, possessive force. Again, “The Conjuring” doesn’t do anything wrong… Wan and DP John Leonetti submerge the viewer with glorious tracking shots and a gently swishing camera that rarely fails to accurately navigate the creepiness of those old two story houses…. A few of the scares are effective, even if Joseph Bishara’s screeching violin score accentuate the moment a bit much at times…. And the set design is impeccable. Still, the horror genre, even when its toned down to the lo-fi effect, is such a precarious thing to master and my expectations were probably sky high. A good film, just not a great one.

The Canyons

Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” is a confused mess. Opening with the weary images of decrepit movie theaters and then seguing into the table conversation of the uber pretty Los Angelinos of James Deen and Lindsay Lohan, “The Canyons” feels like statement on something-perhaps for the producers and their non traditional release approach?- but finishes as a statement on nothing. With a script written by Bret Easton Ellis, vapid nihilism is rampant and the “nothing” factor may be the ultimate point. Lohan and Deen are the couple in the middle of a revolving love triangle. Ryan (Nolan Funk) is involved with the movie-within-the-movie and is sleeping with Lohan. Cynthia (Tenille Houston) a yoga instructor is the on-the-side hookup of Deen and Deen and Lohan pass their nights inviting young couples to their home for orgies. All of this explodes into a ball of paranoia, sexual frustration and deceit, played out against the sunny Los Angeles hillside and chic restaurants. “The Canyons”, largely known for its bad girl casting and performance of Lohan, is ultimately a minor effort for Schrader, once so good at mining the depths of emotional confusion and sexual repression. Even the introduction of a violent third act can’t redeem or energize this DIY fashion exhibit.

Only God Forgives

The audible “what?” at the end of my particular screening of Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly stylized “Only God Forgives” doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling that hovers over this extreme film. Stretched to the outer limits of genre, there’s a minimal story of revenge as Julian (Ryan Gosling) attempts to fight back against the karaoke singing cop (Vithaya Pangsringarm) who sanctioned the death of his brother. Prodded on by his domineering mother in a delicious turn by Kristen Scott Thomas and set in the sweaty, neon-lit hell of Bangkok, “Only God Forgives” is simply an extension for Refn to develop and deepen his fetish of slow motion walks and pregnant, vacant stares into the camera. And I really liked this movie. Even though it’s dedicated to Alejandro Jodorwosky, Refn has crafted a singular work that not only looks and sounds incredible, but seems to be poking fun at the entire idea of good versus evil.