Friday, July 26, 2013

The Last Few Films I've Seen, July edition

Nothing like a week long internet outage to make one feel so insecure and disconnected from the world....

The last few films I've seen.....

1. The Way Way Back (2013)- More indie blandness from the writers of the ultimate indie blandness "Little Miss Sunshine", this one hits the same notes of family dysfunction and summery climates. The saving grace is Sam Rockwell in a largely Sam-Rockwell-like role yet he manages to impart some genuine warmth.

2. The Red Tent (1969)- Not only does this feature an amazing, highly evocative score from Ennio Morricone (and probably one of his most underrated), but it's one of those lightning bolt revelations of a film.... what is this thing and why have I never heard of it before?? A survivalist drama, it stars Peter Finch as the commander of the real life doomed 1928 dirigible exploration trip to the North Pole and his crew's fight for life on the ice. Also starring Sean Connery as Road Amundsen, who joins the search for his arctic explorer friend and Claudia Cardinale as the love interest of one of the men on board the flight, "The Red Tent" is certainly a mainstream film in casting but a completely international effort. Directed by Mikhail Kalatazov, it follows suit in the Russian vein of filmmaking and feels very arthouse, including the USSR's love of fish eye lenses, frenetic handheld camerawork and that inherent "madness" that seems to infuse the films of Zulawski and others from this time. And technical merits aside, "The Red Tent" is just a brutal, harsh and enveloping experience. Rent it now!

3. Fruitvale Station (2013)- I sort of wish the opening images of Ryan Coogler's debut film didn't happen since they seem to lessen the blow a bit later, but "Fruitvale Station" is still a compelling piece of individual agitprop. Michael B. Jordan (fans of "The Wire" rejoice) is Oscar and the film patiently observes his day in Oakland on New Yers Eve 2009 before the unthinkable happens. This will probably be the indie breakout of the year, but nothing is more resonant in this film than the final image of real-life innocence.

4. The Burglars (1971)- Terrific, lost 70's Jean Paul Belmondo/Omar Shariff heist film. The opening robbery is amazing and it just gets better from there, featuring elongated car chases and a fist fight on the hillside.

5. X (2009)- Australia softcore... there's really nothing more than that. High class hooker picks up younger streetgirl and they become involved in drugs and murder. Not sure where I heard about it, but it fails to titillate or thrill. It's not even Donald Cammell "Wild Side" erotica.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Unintentional Double Feature: Exodus and The Gatekeepers

Two films that examine the Israeli State, Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” and Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers”, may not be the most unbiased or educational efforts on the tenuous subject, but they do serve as bracing examples of how Hollywood and the Jewish community themselves may view their long, arduous struggle for a homeland. Seeing them together, in quick succession, doesn’t make me a Jewish state expert, but both films give me a circumference of knowledge I didn’t have before.

Released in 1960 and starring Paul Newman, “Exodus” is a bit long in the tooth, but completely justified of its almost four hour running time due to the swiftness it gives its subject… that being Leon Uris’s praised novel. Beginning immediately after World War 2 when Jewish refugees were being sorted around the globe, “Exodus” intensifies its scope on the island of Cyprus where a Haganah officer named Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) successfully maneuvers a large group of refugees out of Cyprus and into Jerusalem. From there, the film focuses on the uneasy relationship between the new Jewish settlers and the large Arab contingency after 1950. Also part of the story are Dov Landeau (Sal Mineo) as an impressionable and violent young man who joins the Irgun (a violent offshoot of the Haganah) and carries out attacks towards Arabs. This being Hollywood, there’s also the development of a love story between Newman and visiting American widow Eva Marie Saint who not only finds herself falling in love with Palestine, but also the customs and ways of life there. Strikingly, the most moving relationship in the film doesn’t belong to Newman and Saint, but the younger, tragic romance between Mineo and Jill Haworth as Karen, a fellow refugee.

Comments on Jewish diplomacy aside- and the film and book have often been praised as very pro-Zionist for good reasons- “Exodus” is just good old fashioned filmmaking. I haven’t delved very deeply into Preminger’s full oeuvre, but “Exodus” is a very patient, subtle work. Filmed in 70MM (and boy would I love to see it in the ration on the big screen today), the images are given room to breathe. Long dialogue scenes are often relegated to a single take and characters are placed at the left or right edges of the frame with plenty of space out to the side where the eye can roam on the atmosphere of the room. One scene in particular, as Sal Mineo’s character is interrogated by a group of men and probably sealed his awards run that given year, is directed with grace and precision, bringing in elements of film noir and silent cinema. Visually, “Exodus” is a treat and one of those rare instances where bloated Hollywood got it right.

At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers”, an austere and clinical documentary that interviews six different men who at one time or another were heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the CIA or NSA. Through straight-forward talking head interviews and stock footage, “The Gatekeepers” buries itself headlong into the messy, complicated and bureaucratic manners of not only protecting Israel’s individualism but the sacrifice of human collateral.

The six men speak on a variety of topics like true politicians, rarely blinking, and refusing to admit mistakes. Moreh’s documentary is fascinating for not only the way in which the military heads justify their actions, but their subjective and inside view of a nation’s political swamps. Like “Exodus”, “The Gatekeepers” may not be the most historically correct aspect of the Jewish chapter in history, but it’s one that deserves its own slot. If Uris and Preminger’s vision of Israel ended on the precarious image of a line of military trucks heading into an unknown battle, Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” is the logical extension of that image where violence and counter action are the norms of everyday life… and one that’s still being fought today.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Asghar Farhadi Files: Dancing In the Dust

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi broke onto the international scene last year with his challenging and complex domestic thriller "A Separation".... a film that would go on to clean up international awards as well as the Oscar for foreign film. Naturally, when a filmmaker emerges so explosively on the scene, my auteur juices are piqued. With five films under his belt, Farhadi represents the new generation of Iranian filmmaking... one that's attuned to the minor details of everyday life explored in the works of pioneers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf while saddling his tales with progressive ideas and advancing Iranian cinema into the 21st century. It was imperative for Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf to introduce us to the Iranian way of life on film and now Farhadi is charged with incorporating the basics and creating a further template (the domestic thriller?) for Iranian cinema to grow.

Having said all that, Farhadi's 2003 debut, "Dancing In the Dust" is a bit simple. Nazar (Yousef Khodaparest) and Rayhaneh (Barab Kosari)  are a young married couple forced to divorce when rumors of her mother being a prostitute surface. Obviously in love, the couple conform to society's unfair regulation, yet Nazar doesn't have the money to pay her marriage stipend. Seeking random jobs, Nazar ends up stowing away in the back of a van, where he ends up in the middle of the desert with stoic, old snake catcher (Faramarz Ghari) and battles not only the elements, but the old man's mysterious past.

While there are thematic connections coursing through the film's veins (namely a courtroom scene that mimics the tense sessions of divorce in "A Separation"), "Dancing In the Dust" is most provocative for its jarring tonal shift. The first 30 minutes, featuring a nifty French New Wave-like jump cut where Nazar and Rayhaneh meet on a bus, he follows her home, and they're later a couple watching a movie, diametrically opposes the second half of the film that plays like a red dirt apocalypse film where the only living things are Nazar, the Old Man and the snakes they're attempting to catch. It's here in the desert where Farhadi fleshes out his themes of mortal regret and isolation. Nazar, a bit of a foolish, impetuous spoiled brat and the only real detriment of the film is his grating performance at times, is eventually helped by the Old Man. The focus of the film shifts from Nazar's petty financial situation to the haunted eyes of the Old Man.... one who keeps the picture of his ex-wife hidden away and only shares stories of his troubled past when he's trying to keep Nazar awake after an accident. Ghari gives a tremendously moving performance and one who wears the scars of a lifetime on his weathered face and deep eyes. It's not hard to imagine these two being the same person and Farhadi visualizing a young man meeting his time travelling self from the future.

While not an explosive debut, "Dancing In the Dust" is an interesting effort, shadowboxing the later themes that will emerge in Farhdai's work. A bit amateurish at times, it is a film that signifies a talent who understands the nuances of life and the complexities of modern relationships.