Friday, June 28, 2013

The Current Cinema 21

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is a study in vapidity, executed with such style and cinematic prowess that one almost forgets its really just an updated version of Bret Easton Ellis and his young, chain smoking, status-obsessed L.A. denizens. Taking its story from the headlines of the late aughts when a group of young people begin to rob the empty homes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Rachel Bilson, “The Bling Ring” makes few apologies for its careless, star infatuated group. The film’s young stars, especially Emma Watson and Katie Chang, anchor the film with head-spinning simple reductions of “you’re stressing me out” and “what did Lindsey say?” when their unrealistic exploits of robbing the rich and famous begins to come crashing down on them. It all makes for a shattering condemnation…. And are the kids alright? Like her previous films, Coppola mines the young, disaffected halls of youth with blurring audacity and with “The Bling Ring”, she may have crafted her most empty exploration yet… which doesn’t sound like a compliment but it is. Dedicated to Harris Savides, the film looks incredible as well, none more so stunning than the long, slow zoom into a house on top of the Hollywood hills as a pair of thieves run rampant through the glass hallways and rooms. Moments like these, as well the various long takes that drift in and around the players as they dart and ramble around the various stacked closets and rooms, imbue the film with an artful, ethereal grace. A very underrated work that's getting little attention.

Man Of Steel

Zach Snyder’s (remake? Reboot?) of the “Superman” franchise is a thing of two halves. The first part, attempting to solidify the Superman mythos through the morally conflicted Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and his awkwardly conforming years, is the best. Not only does this portion effectively build sympathy and affection for the young Superman, but it features a terrifically nuanced performance by Kevin Costner as Superman’s Kansas father. The second half, when the real shit hits the fan per say and General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth to do battle with Superman, is less interesting just when it should be soaring. I suppose that’s where I currently am with the CGI blockbuster. Just when things get explosive and eye-popping over the more subtle touches regarding human involvement, I check out. Needless to say, I checked out big time with “Man of Steel” after the first hour. Also, while Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan attempt to deaden the otherwise all-American tableaux of the original Superman character by giving him moral confusion and even the chance to kill someone, actor Cavill feels wrong in carrying the weight, a fact that severely hurt the previous Superman reboot “Superman Returns” with Brandon Routh. I suppose we all really underestimated the abilities of Christopher Reeve.

World War Z

I will admit that Marc Forster’s “World War Z” is far from the bombastic failure that was being reported months ago as re-shoots and escalating budgets forced along the rumor mill, but its also very….ordinary and unmoving. While Brad Pitt does lend star power to an otherwise unknown international cast, he’s also the least interesting character in the film….an emotionless cipher who travels around the globe trying to pinpoint where the virus originated. Still more distracting is the frenzied, illogically constructed chase and fight scenes in the first half of the film. When compared with the more methodical and carefully constructed scenes later in the film, one does begin to wonder whether Forster’s cinematic vision really was tampered with that much in the end.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What's On My Mind


Just glad to be home after 3 long days in the dust bowl of Oklahoma

Saturday, June 15, 2013

If I Programmed a Film Festival #4

Time for another edition of this fun idea. It's been too long, and with the opening of another Alamo Drafthouse here in Dallas, what better time to celebrate the vagaries of what's possible in the dark.

Day 1

****The Very Dry Spy showcase, spotlighting the more cerebral spy films out there

Harry Palmer double feature:

 "Funeral In Berlin" and "The Ipcress File"

****US Premier, Texas Filmmaker Showcase Panel

"Aint Them Bodies Saints", dir. by David Lowery

**** Midnight Madness event

"Vicious Lips". dir. by Albert Pyun

Day 2

****US Premier, Texas Filmmaker Showcase

"The Retrieval", dir. by Chris Eska

****The Very Dry Spy showcase, spotlighting the more cerebral spy films out there

Alfred Hitchcock's "Topaz"

"The Spy Who Came In From the Cold", dir. by Martin Ritt

****World Premier special event with director Q&A

"Only God Forgives", dir. by Nicolas Wending Refn

****Texas Filmmaker showcase

Shane Carruth appreciation, special screenings and roundtable with cast/crew of "Upstream Color" and "Primer"

****Midnight Madness event

"100 Years of Adolf Hitler", dir. by Christophe Schlingensief.... yes a real thing starring Udo Kier

Day 3

Saturday Premier day/closing festivities

"Fruitvale Station", dir. by Ryan Coogler

"Call Girl", dir. by Mikael Marcimain

"The Grandmaster", dir. by Wong Kar Wai

"The Immigrant", dir. by James Gray

"The Past", dir. by Asghar Farhadi

****Midnight Madness event

"Threads", dir. by Mick Jackson

Saturday, June 08, 2013

My Pantheon

I recently re-read "The American Cinema" by Andrew Sarris, partly in moist eyed remembrance of my most influential and favorite American film critic, but mostly due to the fact it'd been over ten years since I last read it. Having seen a large body of many of the directors mentioned certainly helps in appreciating Sarris and his razor-sharp analogies, and it struck me: what changes would Sarris make today, in 2013, if any? Does he still write off Aldrich, Lumet and others quite so easily now that time has given their canon lenghty and discussive analysis? And, more importantly, what would my pantheon look like? So, here, in quick succession with only a few minutes (and looks back over my best of lists for the past 30 years or so) is how I'd rank things (foreign directors accepted). If one is so inclined, comments and your own rankings on your own blogs is encouraged!

I. Pantheon Directors

Martin Scorsese
Jean Luc Godard
Jean Pierre Melville
John Cassavetes
Michael Mann
Olivier Assayas
John Frankenheimer
Coen Brothers
Wim Wenders
Francesco Rosi
Edward Yang
Tony Scott
Sam Fuller
Abel Ferrera

II. The Second Tier

Michael Winterbottom
Sidney Lumet
Johnny To
Robert Altman
Roman Polanski
Francis Ford Coppola
Frank Perry
Brian DePalma
John Carpenter
Emir Kusturica
Terence Malick (despite my love wavering the last 2 films)
Takeshi Kitano

III. Highly Regarded, but too soon to tell

Paul Thomas Anderson
Wes Anderson
Julio Medem
James Gray
Christopher Nolan
You Le
Fatih Akin
Andrew Dominik
David Fincher
Jacques Audiard
Darren Aronofsky
Rian Johnson
Wong Kar Wai


Friday, June 07, 2013

A Meta Life: Stories We Tell

Filmmaker/actress Sarah Polley deserves to be titled in that order, if it makes a huge difference. Yes, she's a luminous actress, but over the past 4 years and 3 films, Polley has ascended into something bigger than that... a woman crafting tremendous, personal works of art that transcend her young age.

Polley's latest film, "Stories We Tell" is a documentary, turning the lens on herself and her own family as she scalpels away at the truth of the infectious personality of mom Diane and exactly what happened in the late 70's. Using direct interviews, grainy home video footage and even actor-portrayed recreations, "Stories We Tell" charts the timeline of her family with judicious investigation. Why doesn't she look like the rest of her family? What causes a marriage to fade into boredom and familiarity? And what's the responsibility of future generations to trace the truth of past ones? All of these questions are answered in Polley's capable hands, at great personal cost to all.

In actuality, Polley has probably been answering these questions for years now. Her debut film, "Away From Her" was a moving and real depiction of a woman's slow ascent into sickness, featuring a wonderfully nuanced performance by Julie Christie and, obviously, based on the slow progression of cancer that eventually took Polley's own mother when she was just 11 years old. Last year, Polley released "Take This Waltz"... a film starring Michelle Williams as a woman torn between the comforts (and boredom) of marriage and the exciting possibility of an affair. I was on the fence about the film, amazed by certain moments of spontaneity but taken aback by the weird outbursts of Williams' character. After seeing "Stories We Tell", it's clear "Take This Waltz" was more autobiographical than anyone realized. Both films, seen as a fictional and then non-fictional rendering of the same woman- Polley's mother- compliment each other and deepen the conflicted and quizzical feelings Sarah must have about her mother. While most of us can appreciate a parent in the here and now, Polley is recreating her through grainy images, interpretive writing and tough questions.

In "Stories We Tell", a unique structure is used where her own father reads aloud fom a text (we find out at the end of the film where it came from) and Polley frames the images around the meta-textual musings. It's ironic (and somehow perfect) that the most memorable images of the documentary are stationary reaction shots of Polley as she listens, her face or mouth or eyes tightening or twitching in discovery as the words are made. Not only is it a human moment, but a touching one that forces the audience to discover and relate to her own discovery. The best non-fiction works, like those of Jonathan Caouette or Ross McElwee, not only mine the potential of a great personal story but they allow us unsettling peaks behind the emotional curtain of the author or storyteller. Sarah Polley has created a brave undressing of her family that not only belongs in this class of personal docudrama, but stands head and shoulders above anything else this year so far.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Cinema Obscura: Threads

When films like "Mad Max", "The Day After" or "The Road" set the viewer in a savage, post-apocalyptic world where survival is boiled down to the essentials like a knapsack of canned goods or warm clothes, Mick Jackson's startling TV movie "Threads" shows us just exactly how we got to that violent point in mankind. Released to great acclaim on BBC television in 1984, "Threads" has since vanished from home distribution, which is a shame because not only is it a highly plausible and fascinating pseudo documentary, but a very scary entry in the post apocalypse genre that's been rejuvenated by the likes of zombie plagues ("The Walking Dead") and big budget vehicles ("I Am Legend").

Beginning with the intimate and working out towards the global, "Threads" open with the young romance of Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), deciding to get married after Ruth becomes pregnant. We're then introduced to both families in the urban town of Sheffield, one a bit more higher along the class system than the other. There are hints and reports of growing threats between Russia and the United States, inferred through snippets of radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines. Slowly, life becomes unruly when submarines are sunk and encroachments along the borders of certain nations are mentioned. Grocery stores run low. Local authorities go underground to convene special recovery governments and talk through their plans. After establishing some sympathy with our neutral observers, "Threads" launches the mushroom cloud at about the one hour mark, and the rest of the film is a harrowing exercise in death, survival and nuclear winters. What makes "Threads" so believable, besides its ominous cuts to text on the screen that states things like "500 million tons of radioactive dust in the atmosphere" and the devastating effects on crops and human life years after the explosion, is the bureaucratic breakdown of society. Not only are ordinary people unable to cope with the nuclear attack, but the independent governments set up around England are under-manned, underwhelmed and simply not prepared to deal with survival on a grand scale. Often overlooked is the basic fact that, upon any first nuclear strike, an EMP wave will knock out all communication and electricity immediately. In our wired society today, that spells disconnect and panic. "Threads" succinctly analyzes every aspect of the possible disaster. And with eloquent minds like Carl Sagan and Dr. Arthur Katz lending contributions to the film, its science is both foolproof and real.

Director Mick Jackson would go onto fame in the 90's with endearing films like "LA Story" (more of a cult classic than anything) and "The Bodyguard", but its his modestly hidden TV terror classic "Threads" that ranks as his best work. Writer Barry Hines also deserves alot of the credit. If one has grown tired of the fictional accounts of what the world would be like after a nuclear holocaust, "Threads" documents a convincing 1-2-3 step process. And that final scene, lingering on 13 years after the disaster, just calls for its own movie.... a hugely sad and nihilistic salute just when one thinks there may be a glimmer of optimism.