Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.10

The Gambler

Rupert Wyatt's remake of the 1974 film of the same title features an extended scene where the film's gambling-riddled professor of literature James Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) expounds on the philosophy buried within Albert Camus' "The Stranger" to his class. The reason the shooter in the book only fired five shots was to save one bullet for himself. In essence, that sums up Bennett as well, continually pressing his luck with the underworld heads of illegal gambling and refusing to cower or make explanations when he cannot pay. It's an interesting theme which the film tries to 'literalize', but comes up woefully short. Part of the problem is Wahlberg himself. "The Gambler", written by the loquacious William Monahan ("The Departed", "Kingdom of Heaven") sounds alot smarter than Wahlberg is able to project, especially during his long winded classroom lectures where he manages to insult his students and then flirt with another (Brie Larson) all in the same breath. Jessica Lange, as his addled mother, fares much worse in her few opening scenes, playing her role just short of something camp. In fact, the only character in the entire film able to carry the script's pow-pow, hard edged rhythm is John Goodman as a high financier of money. Despite all that, "The Gambler" looks incredible, especially in its nocturnal crawl through the cavernous gambling dens of Los Angeles. All the ingredients are there for something special, but "The Gambler" just tries too hard.

The Imitation Game

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with "The Imitation Game", its just an incredibly safe and anesthetized version of Alan Turing's top secret mission in breaking Nazi Germany's enigma codes during World War 2. Full of easily digestable storylines which shuffle back and forth (courtesy of even intertitles just in case one can't keep up!) between his awkward duckling youth, the enigma code-breaking tensions of the war and his fall in 1951 via a nosy cop, "The Imitation Game" wears its prestige on its sleeve.

Hard To Be A God

Completing my retrospective of Alexei German films, "Hard To Be A God" is quite the career-capper. A project he'd wanted to make for over 30 years and dying before the fully realized project saw the shimmering lights of the big screen, it's an audacious, confounding experiment that I admire more than like. Clocking in at 3 hours and featuring an endless procession of first person handheld cinemetography, the film is ostensibly about the inability of knowledge to impact the present, or more specifically, the past. The idea in the film is that two scientists from the future travel back to Earth during the Middle Ages. The footage we see, recorded from small cameras on their foreheads, reveals a pulsating mass of deplorable conditions, people stacked together like sardines and floating in mud, blood, vomit and feces. German's set design is completely enveloping, and the overall tone descends into madness as the scientists simply react to the barrage of non sequiter dialogue, dense and unexplained mentions of certain people and toothless grins directly into the camera. It's probably an hour into "Hard To Be A God" when I decided to let go and allow the reigning chaos to be the guide. It's a unique experience, but one I never quite want to revisit.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Deep Stax: My Favorite Music of 2014

I seem to say this every year, but I listened to ALOT of music this year. Maybe it's the fact I finally accepted the viable and gratifying vehicle of online distribution for new music, making it easily consumable. I think this is the first year in m life when I didn't buy a single cd. YouTube, Spotify and Pandora opened up whole new worlds of music for me while my own resurgance with vinyl as a musical medium not only got me buying LP's again, but also prompted me to fill in the gaps of my already pretty large record collection with odd Van Morrison and Neil Young selections. I feel comfortable doing a music list now, sampling a wide variety of highly noted releases that have consistently cropped up on other 'best of' lists from worthy publications and online friends. My only conclusion- there's a lot of awful music out there as well that has people doing cartwheels that I just don't get. Regardless, that's what makes us unique as individuals and consumers.

10. Jessy Lanza- Hyperdub

Vocalist Jessy Lanza is new to me. I don't usually fall for this level of pop, but the hyperdub retuning of certain songs feels like an awesome throwback to the 80's. Her song "Strange Emotion" is a show stopper and the entire album is full of unique surprises and small miracles.

9. From Indian Lakes- Absent Sounds

Another introduction this year was Northwestern area band From Indian Lakes. Gaining acclaim when singer/songwriter Joey Vannuchi utilized MySpace (remember that!) to introduce some of his songs in 2009, the band formed soon after. “Absent Sounds”, their second album, lapses a bit into pop and even old-school ‘emo’ at times, yet its commitment to strong lyrics and a full sound won me over and had me playing it continuously throughout the year.

8. Interstellar soundtrack- Hans Zimmer

At least one soundtrack grabs hold of my senses each year, and this time it was Hans Zimmer with his "Interstellar" soundtrack. Yes, there was plenty of caterwaling about the sound mix during early scrennings of the film, but I heard none of this on any of my three trips to the theater in experiencing Nolan's masterpiece- even in IMAX. Zimmer's score is loud at times, but it never dulled the emotion of the film or its dialogue, instead creating a resonant and enveloping accentuation to the film.

7. Mogwai- Rave Tapes

Honestly at this point in the game, there's probably not a Mogwai release I won't love. Their latest, "Rave Tapes" doesn't break any new ground, but it carries on their tradition of low-fil chill and full post-rock sound that's made them famous.

6. Strands of Oak- Heal

As Strands of Oak, singer-songwriter Tim Showalter assembled a minimal supergroup, including Dinosaur Jr guitarist J Mascis, and put together this album. At its core, "Heal" is another brilliant confessional by a hugely talented songwriter (like Matthew Houck and "Phospherence" last year) that doesn't play by the rules of established 'groupdom', choosing to stitch together talented people whenever possible and almost guerilla produce their intentions. "Heal" succeeds on every account.

5. Sun Kil Moon- Benji

Talk about tortured confessional. Sun Kil Moon's (real name Mark Kozelek) sixth album under that nomenclature reaches intimate heights. "Benji" blazes through a range of staggered emotions, such as when he sings about the various deaths of family members by spontaneous combustion or the way the death of his grandmother elicited laughter in him due to the pent up stress. The album is honest and painful in ways that most music simply avoids.

4. Beck- Morning Phase

All I can say about Beck is that between this album and 2002's "Sea Change", he's quietly become the slacker Willie Nelson. We always need slacker Willie Nelsons.

3. Ought- More Than Any Other Day

A punk band that sounds like a cross between The Violent Femmes and Sonic Youth is the most apt description I can imagine for Ought. Their debut album is a packed swerve through a variety of sounds.... made all the more impressive when I read they created the album by just grooving in the studio and molding songs out of that improvisation. I look forward to whatever they create next.

2. The Afghan Whigs- Do the Beast

As a fan of the Afghan Whigs since I discovered thir landmark 1993 album "Gentleman" way back in the day, "Do the Beast" is the most happy reunion in ages. Leader/frontman Greg Dulli has always pissed around with various other groups, never straying too far from the Whigs patent sound, but "Do the Beast" is something special. There's a concept here as songs bleed into one another and lyrics repeat themselves in different songs. It also feels like an album from somewhere deep in the band, wandering around in the musical world for so long and finding their place together again.

1. The Antlers- Familiars

"Hospice" and "Burst Apart" hovered near the very top of my favorites in their respective years as The Antlers continually create transcendetal music. With "Familiars", they've outdone themselves, infusing each and every song with heartbreak, doubt and a strong sense of memory that feels like one can picture the people and places they sing about. When Peter Silberman says "well you're already home but you don't know where to find it. It's not a house we remember but a feeling outside it when everyone's gone and we leave the lights on anyway...." the magnitude of going home never felt so prescient. It's a towering masterpiece.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.9

Electric Boogaloo

First and foremost, director Mark Hartley is a fanboy of the highest order, proven by his rip-roaring ode to ozploitation in "Not Quite Hollywood". I haven't seen "Machete Maidens Unleashed", but the minute I get the urge to delve into the underbelly of the Filipino film market, I'm sure it'll be the first source I crack open. Hartley's latest film, "Electric Boogaloo", charts the rise and fall of the once powerful Cannon Film company.... the production group that spawned a plethora of high voltage, emotionally simple movies on this young boy from the age of 10 to about 15. "The Last American Virgin", "Over the Top", "Missing In Action", "Death Wish 2", "American Ninja", "Cyborg"- films my friends and I snuck into the theater to see multiple times or caressed the VHS boxes on the shelves, intently conniving ways to persuade our parents to rent them. And its that connection with our youth that "Electric Boogaloo" strongly latches onto and won't let go. "Electric Boogaloo" isn't a good documentary on the most elemental level- it never raises any questions or challenges the conventions of the genre. It could easily be something produced by Cannon itself back in the day and dumped onto the Starz channel at 4am. Yet it's an insidious love letter to a certain type of film that holds a unique place in my formative film viewing years, and sometimes we have to look beyond the formal inadequacy of something and allow our ten year old self to revel in the sheer joy of not knowing any better.


Jean Marc Vallee’s film does the improbable…. it takes a well worn treatise on self exile and eventual self fulfillment and makes it feel vital and organic. A lot of this has to do with the source material by Cheryl Strayed, whose life and journey the film is based upon and performed magnificently by Reese Witherspoon. Deciding to escape her troubled life and hike 1000 miles from New Mexico to Canada, “Wild” intercuts her spontaneous and tough walk with the events that landed her in a dark place to begin with. Playing like a patchwork of flashbacks, conversations, moods, memories and sounds that ebb and flow brilliantly into a stream of conscious-like scrapbook, the film coalesces into a cathartic experience. As he proved with “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, Vallee expertly handles the material and elicits vivid portraits from even the smallest secondary roles. But even more than that, “Wild” is a moving exploration of why we sometimes need to fall off the grid and allow life to catch us somewhere below.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Performances of the Year.... So Far (the guys)

As compared to the ladies so far this year, I have to admit its been lackluster for the guys. Still, here are five performances that caught my eye. This list excepts my favorite performance of the year (and hopeful Oscar winner) Michael Keaton in "Birdman".

Bill Hader in "The Skeleton Twins"

As a suicidal homosexual going home to reunite with his sister (an equally good Kristen Wiig), Hader avoids the pratfalls of indie quirkiness and creates a full bodied, conflicted presence. We all knew Hader could make us laugh, but who knew he had this performance in him?
JK Simmons in "Whiplash"

JK Simmons has long been one of my very favorite "character" actors and in "Whiplash", he finally gets the opportunity to take a bit of the center stage as a misogynistic, brutally honest and downright ferocious jazz music teacher who pushes one student a bit too far. It's a showy performance, yes, but one that Simmons inflects with every inch of his muscular arms and shaven head.
Benecio Del Toro in "Jimmy P."

It's encouraging to see Arnaud Desplechin's early year release "Jimmy P; Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian" popping up on a few best of lists. It's a wonderful little film, populated by a series of one-two discussions between Del Toro and doctor Matthieu Almaric. Del Toro gives a quiet, focused performance of a man struggling with PTSD before anyone really knew what it was, enhanced by his nondescript status as an American Indian. The final scene between Del Toro and his daughter is a knockout of internal acting and just shows how great Del Toro has been for so many years now.

 Mark Ruffalo in "Foxcatcher"

In a film where anyone of the three main performances could be cited as terrific, it's Ruffalo who resonated most profoundly with me. Another highly internal performance (seeing the common denominator with this list), Ruffalo acts with his eyes, body language and almost hushed sense of presence as the older brother to Channing Tatum. "Foxcatcher" builds to a violent finale, and its Ruffalo who made me care the most in this triangle of misplaced patriotism, jealousy and decaying sense of self importance.
Billy Bob Thornton in "The Judge"

All hail the return of Billy Bob! It feels like Thornton has been missing for so long on the silver screen, although IMDB shows he's just been pretty busy on the small screen (and "Fargo" the tv series feels like something major I've been missing). His role as the prosecuting attorney in "The Judge" is a small one, bookended by a peculiar water flask and deliberate tone of non empathy. Yet, anytime he was on-screen, the film felt infinitely more imprtant.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Alexei German Files: My Friend Ivan Lapshin

After "Trial On the Road" (1971) and "Twenty Days Without War" (1977), two films that dealt with the experience of war (or, more specifically the absence of it in one), filmmaker Alexei German's next project was delayed almost ten years. Filmed in 1985 but not debuted until two years later at a Moscow film festival, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" may be his masterpiece. German's visual schematic of cluttered, claustrophobic interiors and snow-laden exteriors, both barely able to contain the perpetual movement of bodies and the thoughts that spew from them, again represents German's snapshot of a particular place and time. Set in the mid 30's just before the Stalin purge of Russian Jews and the onslaught of World War 2, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" takes its time in eventually focusing on the titular character, choosing to embellish mood and atmosphere before real narrative sets in. Like all of German's films, they can be hard to penetrate sometimes.... full of political allegory and off-hand lines of dialogue that explode with hidden anger or poetic jealousy. While "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" has its share of obfuscated moments, it's German's most accessible and tangible work.

Playing out in a three part episode, half remembered by an off-screen voice over of a young child now grown into a man, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" introduces us to its array of characters as a mixture of families and policemen living in a communal household. Boisterous and playful, we soon me Ivan Lapshin (Andrei Boltnev), the most respected and even tempered of the group. The middle section of the film introduces the relationships in Lapshin's life in Khanin (Andrey Mironov), a writer quietly reeling from the death of his wife and an actress named Natasha (Nina Ruslanova). Lapshin has a crush on Natasha, but is soon rebuffed by her when its discovered she's already started an affair with Khanin. One would imagine the potential for jealousy and third act retribution would kick into high gear after this revelation, but it's ignored by German and even has Lapshin and Khanin continuing their friendship into the final act where Lapshin invites Khanin with him on a manhunt for a group of wanted criminals. Its the final act, filmed in a staggering and tense-ridden long take, as the cops descend through a fog into a small village looking for the criminal that "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" coalesces into a prominent work. By this point, we care so deeply for Lapshin and the enveloping atmosphere of 1930's Russia that the spectre of "something big" lingers over the entire film. And even in that regard, German has a narrative surprise for us.

Viewed within the context of his larger body of work, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" fits neatly into his themes of nationalism and scrapbook-like remembrances from his writer father Yuri. Two small portions of the film inexplicably turn into color stock, fashioned like old polaroid photographs burned into one's memory. Also, the dichotomy of society/war/lawfulness meeting the artificiality of a staged play was a large part of "Twenty Days Without War". Both films also posit a doomed relationship between the drifter/warrior and an actress.... almost as if the two columns of life can never fully mesh. And equally doomed is everyone in the film. With the sweeping changes we know from history on the horizon, "My Friend Ivan Lapshin", like Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg" or Haneke's "The White Ribbon", is surepptitously about the passing of a generation... an observation made innocently by the final (color) image and a voice decrying the amount of traffic and tram lines encasing the city. There are no more Ivan Lapshins left.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.8


While simmering tension and dread is there right from the beginning in Bennett Miller’s true tale “Foxcatcher”, the resounding impact from the film remains its stillness. Many scenes are shrouded in quiet, almost hushed conversations, all of which makes the emotional explosion towards the end that much more shocking. Tracking the doomed relationship between wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Canning Tatum and Mark Ruffalol) and wealthy Olympic supporter John E. DuPont (Steve Carell), “Foxcatcher” is a dense study in repressed emotions from all sides. While Carell undergoes the most physically transformative of the roles (and he is really, really good), the best acting comes from Tatum and Ruffalo. With statures like apes and lacking the ability to fully express their sentiments outside of casual positive reinforcement or the comfort of each other’s body in practice, “Foxcatcher” soon becomes a pointed attack on the ‘haves’ versus the ‘havenots’. This widening gulf eventually swallows everyone and director Miller orchestrates the quiet apocalypse with deft precision.


“Citizenfour”, directed by Laura Poitras, is a documentary of prescient timing. Not only was Poitras in the right place and time to document and record whistleblower Edward Snowden’s journey through the media minefield, but “Citizenfour” fits in snuggly with our current preoccupation of governmental distrust. I’m not saying it’s a perfect film, but I can’t imagine a more timely release for a real life paranoid expose like it. Receiving cryptic emails from Snowden almost eight months before coming out with his classified NSA documents concerning the level of privacy piracy by the government, Poitras builds her film around the hotel room conversations she and Snowden (and journalist Glenn Greenwald) recorded. These conversations- in which justification, anxiety and some doubt creep into Snowden- establish the beating pulse of the film. Less interesting are the bits of context mixed around the interviews, namely hearings on privacy invasion and talking head media conferences. Included, I’m sure, to educate the general viewer on the rampant encroachment of industry upon personal privacy like a visual Wikipedia, I felt them a bit redundant and ultimately a remedial effect for the film.

The Homesman

Back in the director-actor seat again, Tommy Lee Jones tackles the western with “The Homesman”, a genre that yielded strong results a few years ago with his “The Three Burial Of Melquidas Estrada”. Where that film was lean, savage and complex, “The Homesman” struggles to find and maintain a tone from the very beginning. Hilary Swank stars as Marry Cuddy, a woman alone in the Nebraska territory who takes on the mission of transporting three mentally unstable women to Iowa. Drifter and general malcontent Jones comes into the picture when Swank saves him from his impending death and charges him with helping her on the journey. The imbalance between the very dark, dream-like existence of the three crazy women and Swank and Jones’ almost cartoonish relationship continually makes “The Homesman” a puzzling effort. Like a character out of a Peckinpah western, Jones embodies his George Briggs as heartless, misanthropic and a bit cowardly, yet we’re expected to see the ultimate good in him as the credits roll. Equally schizophrenic is Swank’s Marry Cuddy… fiercely independent in the way she steps up into the role of woman’s savior but secretly yearning for nothing more than the modest subjugation of marriage. Sketching characters with these broad strokes of emotional complexity is never a bad thing, but “The Homesman” lacks any real depth in its exploration, especially in a third act twist that feels forced in its corn field journey of martyrdom.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

David Ehrlich kicks off the end of the year extravaganza with another of his beautifully composed and symbiotic Top 25 of the year in film. I so love these things.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Alexei German Files: Trial On the Road

Originally filmed in 1971 but not released until 1985 thanks to those awesome censors that the USSR had in place during this time, Alexei German's sophomore film deserves to be seen no matter when. Vladimir Zamanski is Lazarev, a Russian soldier who, at one point towards the end of the war, was captured by the Germans and forced to work with them. A unit of partisan soldiers- comprised partly of war weary veterans and fresh faced village boys- recapture Lazarev and place him under arrest, not sure whether he can still be trusted. It's only when the unit is faced with the huge task of re-routing a train supply line that they place their faith in Lazarev's new found patriotism. Filmed in German's usual method of stark black and white, "Trial On the Road" expresses both the physical and psychological pressures on men during World War 2. The dynamic between Lazarev and the partisans is presented from both vantage points. We can understand how each side is supremely distrusting of the other. And right up to the violent ending, we're never quite sure if Lazarev will be true to his intentions of helping the partisans or not.

Like the best war films of Russian cinema, "Trial On the Road" excels in presenting the elemental nature of war. Sight and sound are magnified aspects of the experience, such as the hissing noise a spent machine gun makes when it hits the snow covered ground or the completely terrifying image of a German death patrol suddenly emerging in front of a partisan soldier during white out conditions. Filmmaker German ensures these small details are etched into our memory and "Trial On the Road" creates a host of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An Appreciation: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Fando and Lis  (1968) ***- The entry point to Jodorowsky’s cinema is a difficult one. Not too far removed from one of those awful looking student films of the late 60’s, there is something deeper in this parable about a man and paralyzed woman making an arduous journey over a dirty, barren, rock-filled landscape in search of the mythical city of tar. The dynamic between Fando (Sergio Klainer) and Lis (Diana Mariscal) begins as one of child-like affection and love between them, but before long, they become squabbling, pitiless partners. Along the way, they meet and interact with a host of unusual people in what I feel is Jodorowsky’s main theme of the film- the repercussions of external sources to ultimately sour a genuine relationship. If nothing else, this is a theme he’ll be chasing in his unique films for the next 40 plus years.

El Topo (1970) ***½ - A western of dazzling subversion, toying with the very nature of the genre through religious iconography and avant garde hallucinations. Jodorowsky himself stars as the unnamed gunslinger, traveling through the desert first as blood letter and then eventually as the savior to a village of under-privileged and deformed people.  While “Fando and Lis” wants to provoke and challenge, “El Topo is Jodorowsky maturing as a filmmaker, honing his distinctive eye and collapsing so many themes into a compact work. If I don’t like it quite as much as his other work, it’s only because the first half (where he meets and fights a successive group of master gunfighters) feels a bit redundant before hitting its perverse stride in the second half.

The Holy Mountain (1973) **- With “The Holy Mountain”, Jodorowsky’s mythological clap-trap begins to parody itself. A man, seemingly to be Christ, finds his way to a magical tower where its keeper (Jodorowsky himself) takes in the man and introduces him to nine other powerful individuals from each planet of the galaxy. Together, they embark on a journey to find immortality on the legendary holy mountain. Mordantly funny at times (especially in each vignette showcasing the history of the nine chosen) and downright bonkers at others, “The Holy Mountain” seems to be Jodorowsky at his most playfully contempt. The idea of modern greed and technology sullying our lives is well taken, and its probably the perfect film for the dying gasp of ‘hippie-dom’, but too much of it feels like provocation for the sake of LSD inspired intellectualism.

Tusk (1980) *- After his two midnight movies, Jodorowsky re-emerged eight years later with a much more accessible effort. Going in a new direction can be admirable at times, yet “Tusk” only reveals Jodorowsky’s shaky grasp on grounded acting and linear storytelling. The idea of dual nature between man and animal is seized upon at the very beginning when a baby elephant and girl Elise (Cyrielle Clair) are born on the same day. As they grow up, they both deal with various inhumanities, including a group of tusk traders wanting to kill the elephant and Elise’s moral contempt for her father’s empirical landowning practices as a British man in India. In typical Jodorowsky flair, there are elongated scenes of animal cruelty and over-the-top villainy that hammer home their message, but the film fails to elicit any real strong emotions for either man or beast. Not available on home video.

Santa Sangre (1989) ****- An art house slasher film populated by circus rejects. That twitter-like description of the film doesn’t do it’s underlying beating heart justice. Jodorowsky’s own son Axel stars as Fenix, the son of a circus couple who endures a nightmarish childhood when mom catches ringleader husband cheating. Mom is then murdered and dismembered by husband as son watches. It’s no surprise he has troubles adapting to a normal life. Underneath the sordid themes, “Santa Sangre” becomes a twisted love story as well when Alma (Sabrina Dennison), a childhood friend to Fenix, resurfaces and tries to help. Jodorowsky touches on universal themes of unrequited love and childhood psychosis to spin a macabre yet moving fairy tale of sorts. And for all his pop sensationalism, Jodorowsky still has the ability to aggressively comment on all things worldly such as the funeral of an elephant turning into a meat-filled scavenger hunt for the onlooker peasants.

The Rainbow Thief (1990) **½- Virtually disowned by Jodorowsky, “The Rainbow Thief” was his shot at mainstream filmmaking with a modest budget and a name cast. The results are far from disastrous- in fact some of Jodorowsky’s personal touches remain on the film even through his restrictions- and “The Rainbow Thief” emerges as a unique fable with a dash of magic realism for its finale. Starring Omar Sharif as a vagrant and petty thief, he meets Meleagre (Peter O Toole)… a man who has walked away from his family’s fortune and chosen to live without propriety since he overhead the petty squabbles of his family over the comatose body of their patriarch (Christopher Lee, glimpsed only in the wild and excessive opening). The two men form a bond and live underground together, plotting to one day re-emerge and lay claim to the family’s fortune. But the vagrant’s mixed dealings with various lowlifes, pimps and of course midgets, continually gets in the way of that. A bit tone deaf at times, with certain scenes carrying on far too long, the weaknesses of Jodorowsky are glaring. But there’s a weird sweetness to the whole film, never venturing into dark territory or avant garde malaise. Never even released in American theaters and given only a marginal European release, “The Rainbow Thief” deserved a much better fate than that. Not available on DVD.

The Dance of Reality (2013) **- Autobiographical and intensely personal, perhaps “The Dance of Reality” is Jodorowsky’s version of “8 ½”. Split into two distinct portions, the first half deals with a young man’s strict childhood with his father. Since the father is played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis, and features himself in certain ghost-like monologues, the levels of ‘meta’ increase rapidly. The second half follows the father as he embarks on a journey to find himself after he realizes the totalitarian regime that controls his life and his unhappy relationship with his family. How Jodorowsky chooses to fictionalize his obviously painful childhood is interpretative… and looking over his long career, its no surprise “The Dance of Reality” is an amplified excursion of half awake dreams, weird characters (including his mother who sings all her dialogue in opera) and allegorical sight gags. But, the episodic nature of the film continually works against the momentum it occasionally establishes and never fully engaged me. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Performances of the Year...So Far (the women)

With a month or so to go, I know they'll still be one or two performances that knock me over. Yet, for the sake of numerous other year end lists, here are a few roles from the ladies that really shook me up this year. In no order:

Tatiana Pauhofova in "Burning Bush"

As the lawyer fighting against the dynamics of a Communist regime in late 60's Poland, Pauhofova exerts so much with her eyes and guarded body language. The story of Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush" is powerful enough, but Pauhofova adds a steely justice fighter to the mix.
Jessica Chastain in "Interstellar"
Christopher Nolan's ambitious but heartfelt epic (one of my very very faves of the year) can make one's head spin with its loopy science and bouncing time lines, but its the performances of all involved that transcend the large-scale ideas. Jessica Chastain- also getting huge buzz for two other films this year, the still largely unseen "A Most Violent Year" and "Miss Julie"- nails her role as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey struggling to put together the pieces on Earth. Her first confessional scene to daddy in space breaks me apart every time... and I saw the film three times in one week, each time knowing what was coming and still succumbing to her pain.
Ah-sung Ko in "Snowpiercer"

In a largely wordless performance, Ah-sung Ko is my fanboy pick of the year for kickass chick. Regardless of the more athletic nature of her role, something clicked with me. Her large, expressive eyes and her ability to telegraph emotion through body language was a revelation.
Chloe-Grace Moretz in "Laggies"

Despite taking a back seat to the precocious relationship between Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightley, Moretz shined as the daughter caught between the adults' arrested development. Still able to hone the uncomfortable silences of a teenager (such as the great scene when she finally visits her estranged mom) while balancing the believable poise of a girl approaching womanhood, Moretz saves "Laggies" from being a colossal bore.
Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

Felicity Jones has been garnering attention since earlier this year in "The Invisible Woman". In "The Theory of Everything", she plays the wife of Stephen Hawking (whose memoirs the film is based upon) and not only, IMO, out-acts Redmayne, but is the beating heart of the entire affair. Just watch as she strides across a croquet court to steal the mallet from young Hawking or the tremors of resolve that swirl across her face as she makes a decision late in the film.
Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant"

I love how one early review compared Cotillard in "The Immigrant" to Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini's films. The comparison is apt, not only because of the early 20th century aura (and lighting) of the film, but in the way director Gray frames her face and eyes. It's a flagellate role... manipualted, abused and confined by the realities of a harsh New York City, but Cotillard creates a brave and soulful portrait within the callowness.

Andrea Riseborough in "Birdman"

In a film full of snazzy performances, Riseborough's is the least amplified but the one that's stuck with me the most. It may be Michael Keaton's breakdown, but she inhabits a small portion of his unverse with depth and precise reaction shots.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

70's Bonanza: L'Attentant (The Assassination)

Like the best French thrillers, they move at their own pace, elevating scenario, dialogue and Machiavellian politics above action. Yves Boisset's "L'attentant" (aka "The Assassination" or "The French Conspiracy") is a clear example of this. There are some gunshots and chase sequences, but the ultimate pulse of the film lies in the complicated dynamics of how someone is set up and then the various machinations between state, police and general citizens conspire to see their plan to the end. Ripped from real-life headlines- the vanishing of Moroccan politician Mahdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965- "L'attentant" mixes an international cast (Roy Scheider, Jean Seberg and every popular French male actor of the time) with a dialogue laden script whose serpentine authenticity feels just as modern today.

Starring Jean Louis Trintignant, he's the slightly complex anti-hero drafted into the plot by a government agency to sell out his friend, Sadiel (Gian Marie Volonte). Upon luring him to Paris and becoming more and more upset at his involvement in the large scale deception, Trintignant attempts to free his kidnapped friend. Like his previous role in Bertolucci's "The Conformist", his character is a man compromised by the state due to the transgressions of his past. While the idea is much more oblique and abstract in Bertolucci's hands, Boisset maintains a fairly rudimentary arch for him in "L'attentant". He plays a man trapped by his past sins during the Algerian War. His relationship to nurse Jean Seberg is affectionate when it needs to be, then savagely distant the next. Like this main charachter, the entire film is a clean, simple affair. Though the revolving merry-go-round of faces can be overwhelming at times, Boisset and screenwriter Ben Barzman maintain control on the narrative. There's nothing flashy or complicated about the mise-en-scene.  Darker themes are hinted at in conventional camera setups, such as one tracking shot that follows an eavesdropper's long walk to a telephone, passing a dozen other men sitting at desks listening to phone conversations.... the insidious nature of the state's agencies developed through a five second clip. This is exactly the type of slow-burn, exposition heavy thriller I appreciate. In fact, the only thing amplified in "L'attentant" is Ennio Morricone's spruced-up score.

Like his contemporary in Italy, Francesco Rosi, filmmaker Boisset seems accustomed to the non dramatic brushstrokes of the political thriller. In "L'attentant" (like Rosi's "Hands Over the City" or "The Mattei Affair"), the currency is not action but the delicate nature of bargaining and emotional complicity. There's a terrific moment that snaps Trintignant's resolve from being just one of the guys involved in selling out his friend into a committed person to make things right. It's that course of action that propels the second half of the film, and leaves one to wonder if the title of "The Assassination" refers to the political captive or Trintignant's own sinking moral center. It's just one of the delicate pieces examined in Boisset's drama.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Last Few Films I've Seen.... October edition

Rage (1972)- George C. Scott's directorial debut and he stars in it... about a father who takes revenge on the establishment after his son dies. Good stuff. Scott should have gotten the opportunity to direct more.

Fury (2014)- hated it. hated it. walks the uneasy line between John Wayne like jingoism and new liberal Hollywood bullshit. Anyone who reads one iota on the SS knows a final act reprieve is just mind boggingly bad. See previous review.

St. Vincent (2014)- Bill Murray doing Bill Murray which is never a bad thing.

Laggies (2014)- In the span of a couple days, watching this and John Carney's "Begin Again", I think I reached my Keira Knightely quota. This one is the more shaggy-dog indie wannabe of the two, with Knightely flashing that awkward smile and contorted cute face with much more manipulation than usual. For the record, I think I liked "Begin Again" more.

Nightcrawler (2014)- Robert Elswit's cinematography aside, this film turned me off completely. Gyllenhaal doing method acting to the T (even losing weight), Rene Russo playing cliche to the extreme and obvious potshots about our nation's nightly news penchant for the grotesque feel like themes from 1999.

Money Movers(1978)- Lean Aussie crime film about the robbery of a cash counting house. If only I could've understood the Aussie-speak a little more.

Yakuza Wives (1986)- The idea is an interesting one. After thirty years of yakuza films dissecting each other and one-upping the violence, Hideo Gosha decides to frame one entirely around the idea that the wives of the imprisoned bosses are the real ones in charge. Still plenty of violence, though.

Rocco and His Brothers (1961)- When I was 16 or 17, I read the gratitude that Scorsese has for this film and watched it. I think alot of its greatness was missed on me then, but not now. The intimately epic way in which Visconti builds each character and the passing of time is magnificent. It's also brilliant how each section is named for one of the brothers, but its ostensibly about the powerful effect the other brothers have on him.

Burning Bush (2014)- Agnieszka Holland's stunning mini series about the actions of a Polish student in 1969 lighting himself on fire in reaction to the country's political landscape. The defiant, radical act is shown and finished after the first ten minutes. The next four hours involve his family's quest for judicial recognition. As the lawyer representing the family, actress Tatiana Pauhofova is outstanding, and "Burning Bush" becomes an anger-inducing look at how a political machine easily destroys the individual.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

On Birdman

The struggling artist on film has been an especially ripe subject for filmmakers since the medium learned how to refract the light back onto itself. Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Birdman” joins that procession, and not only does it create a visually stunning universe of backstage politics and shifting emotions among actors in a New York play, but it pinpoints something deeper in the psyche of leading man/writer Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). Battling his own inner demons while trying to maintain the week leading up to his opening night, things aren’t made simpler by his inner voice… a stream of conscience rally that wants him to return to his glory days as action film star Birdman. Thrown into the chaotic mix are controversially edgy co-stars (a wonderful Ed Norton), a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and an arts critic just itching to take down his play because Hollywood actors don’t belong in the theater. “Birdman” balances the natural with the supernatural, sometimes with Keaton’s head games taking over the film. But regardless of its flights of fancy (literally at times), “Birdman” is a real triumph of human emotions, anchored by a tremendous performance from Keaton.

For a film that largely takes place inside the head of its leading man, filmmaker Innarritu adopts the same go-for-broke visual style that exists in our own free-floating noggin. Seamless long takes, gliding tracking shots and magnified close-ups not only give us that dreamlike sense of thoughts and dreams, but it also breaks the barriers of “cinema” and stages everything in theatrical cues. Instead of the curtain dropping, we get a time lapse view of the New York skyline or a deceptively subtle crane shot that places actors in two places at the same time. By film’s end, we not only feel like we know every nook and cranny of the St. James Theater, but the jarring difference between energy inside and out. The emergence onto the New York streets outside are adventures, filled with tense, booze-ridden diatribes and nervous half naked walks, as when Keaton (in the film’s slapstick highlight) becomes stuck outside in only his robe and has to fight his way back in for the final scene. But stylish is one thing. “Birdman” also emanates with genuine depth from everyone involved. Each person gets their big scene…. and Emma Stone’s is the best, tearing into her dad with a rant, then slowly allowing her face to register remorse and confusion. Edward Norton, as the hot shot actor brought in last minute to fill the shoes of another, gives his best performance in a long time, alternating between bullish cockiness and naked honesty. The soap opera melodramatics are dialed up to ten, yet “Birdman” is a serious meta-self exploration, angry at times (even towards the audience) and softly affectionate the next. I’ve seen it three times now and each time something new and startling emerges from it. I can’t wait for a fourth viewing.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Terror Trimmings #3

Nightmare City

Umberto Lenzi is a bit of a low-rent Italian filmmaker, working without the stylish penchant of Dario Argento or the creepy nihilism of Lamberto Bava or Lucio Fulci, and "Nightmare City" is a prime example of his somewhat lazy efforts. A radioactive spill infects people on a plane, and once that plane lands, they escape and unleash a flesh-eating outbreak on the city. Long time B movie actor Hugo Stiglitz happens to be the media man who observes the event, then spends the rest of the film trying to save his wife and escape the city. Not much of a horror film, "Nightmare City" should be on the list for anyone's "trash cinema" film festival night at home. What's better than watching zombies attacking people like roving gangs with hammers and steel pipes?


A few months ago, I lamented that this film wasn't available on DVD, and lo and behold, last week one of the terrific indie labels (Shout Factory) released a nice blu-ray edition. Glad to say it still holds up from my original adolescent viewings.... a bit campy at times but still disturbing through its wonderful creature effects and imaginative mythological narrative.

Influenced by the comedic vein of early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, the Spierig Brothers' zombie/alien/Aussie Outback thriller "Undead" is a worthy calling card to Hollywood. Originally released in 2003, The Brothers would go on to make the underrated vampire flick "DayBreakers" in 2010. Amateurish in both characters and plot development at times, "Undead" isn't a great film, but it does contain a certain giddy energy and some gnarly zombies with a finale plot twist that's fitting for its rampant narrative.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Terror Trimmings #2

Requiem For A Vampire

Two schoolgirls (and yes, they're dressed in school girl garb the entire flick) become titillation fodder to lead victims to a vampire's castle. Often cited as one of the more accessible Jean Rollin films, it does have its moments, but ultimately it feels strikingly devoid of that Rollin "charm"... whatever that's come to mean nowadays.
The Day of the Beast

The appearance of the devil is always ripe material for a horror film, and Alex de Iglesia's "Day of the Beast" takes that material to hyper real, twisted places. A priest (Alex Angula) believes he's decoded an ancient text that predicts the coming of the anti-Christ in Spain on Christmas Day. Believing he must be a sinner to fight the being, he enlists the help of a satanic-music-loving shop keeper (Santiago Segura) and a TV show occultist (Armando de Razza). Part black comedy, part head film, "The Day of the Beast" is highly original, even finding room for sly political commentary.
Mulberry Street

Ah, New York City. If it's not terrible traffic, it's the idea that sewer-dwelling rats can suddenly inflict a mutant pandemic on the population. That's the premise for Jim Mickle's "Mulberry Street". Starring Nick Damici as the pugilist everyman who tries to save everyone in his apartment building from the human rat syndrome, "Mulberry Street" is fun. It's also pretty grotesque and an excellent blueprint for Mickle's universe where no character is safe from the swift, unforgiving and brutal violence that would reach its apex with the wonderful "Stake Land" a few years later.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Fury

David Ayer’s “Fury” takes a surprisingly fresh approach to the World War 2 war film- the psychological and physical hell of wartime in the belly of a tank. Unfortunately, that’s the only surprising thing in this leaden, hugely disappointing film. As the tank leader lunging forward through Nazi-infested Germany, Brad Pitt fails to register as the tougher-than-nails fatherly figure of his motley crew. For the first time in a long while, I couldn’t get beyond the “Brad Pitt-ness” of his performance. In fact, the only one that rises above his cliché ridden outline is Shia LeBouf as the religious minded gunner. His performance is quiet, introverted and wholly human. Jon Bernthal (playing unhinged machismo), Micheal Pena (the token minority) and the viewer’s identity into the film via the role of Logan Lerman (freshly minted typist-turned-soldier) lunge across the screen with such war film ‘generic-ness‘, its deafening. Ayer makes certain to hit every checkmark on the personality test. Saint Pitt drives his men hard then saves some shivering German women. Check. Forces the newbie to commit an atrocious act and then chalk it up to life lessons. Check.

“Fury” also establishes casualties in its confused wartime morality. While rarely painting its American soldiers as honorable or even honest (which is certainly not a necessity of the great war films… history tells us differently about both sides), “Fury” spends a majority of its time elevating the nastiness of its German foes while ultimately bowing to a third act reprieve so egregious, it reeks of strained revisionism. “Fury” is the worst type of propaganda. It walks a straight line between John Wayne-like imperialism one minute then shifts to new age Hollywood liberalism bullshit the next, all the while pretending to be a stout history lesson. But then again, I suppose a tank full of guys led by Brad Pitt is fiction enough for anyone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Terror Trimmings #1

Next of Kin

Not to be confused with either the Patrick Swayze revenge-fest or Atom Egoyan's indie calling card, this 1982 Australian film features retirement home horror. It sounds kooky, yes, but the film excels in some stylish direction from director Tony Williams- including one very DePalmaesque slow motion overhead shot when the shit hits the fan- and a strong lead performance by actress Jacki Kerin. When the young woman inherits her aunt's retirement home, she moves in and begins to slowly lose her grip on reality as past and present blur together. A bit of a slasher film in its third act, the first two-thirds is atmospheric and absorbing.
Arcane Sorcerer

Often cited by director Guillermo DelToro as a major influence on his work, Pupi Avati's mid 90's seventeenth century chillfest deserves its accolades as top notch slow-burn horror. Taking place during the eighteenth century, a young priest is exiled by the church after impregnating a woman. He begins working for a writer in an isolated part of the countryside and is exposed to shades of the occult and black magic. Splendid production design, articulate cinematography and a genuinely unnerving narrative all create a wonderfully lurid experience. And its a film full of eyes. Since its often said eyes are the window to the soul (and the stakes are for someone's soul) it all makes perfect sense.
Grapes of Death

Jean Rollin's "Grapes of Death" is certainly more nihilistic than many of his films, yet its still complete with beautiful women, lush French countryside and that aura that one only gets with a Rollin film. It could also be called a precursor to the now popular eco-terror film. After a group of men spray a vineyard with a new chemical, people begin turning into skin melting homicidal zombies. Young Elisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) just happens to be traveling back to the infested area to meet her boyfriend and becomes embroiled in the melee. Infinitely more gory than many of his previous work, it does begin to run out of steam towards the end, but its still a terrific Rollin film. If you like his work, its a must see. It also features a great WTF moment as a blind girl comes stumbling into the film, wandering around alone in what has to be the rockiest part of the French countryside ever. You gotta love Rollin for such ludicrous moments.

Hands of the Ripper

Early 70's Hammer horror film that posits the idea of Jack the Ripper possessing his young daughter and carrying on his killings through her. Enter aged psychiatrist Eric Porter who feels he can study and 'cure' her. Not really an out and out horror film, but more of a slasher film where the killer is exposed in the first ten minutes.
Here Comes the Devil

I was disappointed in this one. While the shocks are subdued ([artly due to the budget constraints I'm guessing) it never really created a believable atmosphere. When brother and sister go missing, parents Laura Caro and Francesco Barreiro become basket cases. The children re-appear the next morning safe and sound. But its only later that mom begins to suspect her children are not acting normally. This sounds terrible to say as a good, staunch Catholic, but devil films always seem to get under my skin. One of the surprisng joys of the new "Annabelle" film is the re-occurance of that especially nasty horned devil thing from the "Insidious" films. In "Here Comes the Devil", the scares are hinted at with little follow-through. The most terrifying thing about the film are the lengths the parents go to exact their own special brand of revenge in one scene. 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

70's Bonanza: Bite the Bullet

Think of the madcap all-star race films of the 1960's ("Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World") transposed to the American West with a bit of 70's melancholy and that's exactly what one gets with the Richard Brooks film "Bite the Bullet". Starring James Coburn, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Jan Michael Vincent, Dabney Coleman and Ben Johnson, the film takes place over the course of one week as the various riders race across 700 miles of tough terrain and barren desert. Along the way, they find their feelings for each other, mend old wounds and generally lament about the passing of the Old West... all stalwart topics in the highly revisionist era of the woozy 1970's. Yet "Bite the Bullet" overcomes its oft cliches and ambles into a deeply entertaining, consistently moving exploration of people against nature and the choices we make, good or bad.

Brooks, a filmmaker of great clarity and purpose, made "Bite the Bullet" towards the end of his career after major hits such as "The Professionals" and "In Cold Blood". At first glance, "Bite the Bullet" looks like a gimmick. All those Hollywood stars, dirtying themselves and flying across the screen on horses at breakneck speed. But its the quieter moments that resonate and reveal the film to be something more. Ben Johnson, as the eldest of the riders, easily embodies the 'death of the west' with his world weary gait and seen-it-all-expressions. Hackman, saddled with a bitter past and even more complicated relationship with fellow female competitor Candice Bergen, is the conscience of the film, holding the others riders in check and, eventually, crafting the film's most perfectly imagineable finale. But it's James Coburn who remains as the soul of the film.... his deep voice always spouting reason and uttering the film's most pungent one liners. "Bite the Bullet" (whose title is a bit of an in-joke within the film) might have been assembled from the Hollywood factory as a method to cash in on the various high profile persona, but it far exceeds those superficial beginnings and becomes something terrific on its own.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Consequences of Pop: Olivier Assayas and "Disorder"

Olivier Assayas' "Disorder" (1986), which marked his formal entrance into the film making world after several short films and a celebrated stint writing for the esteemed French film magazine Cahier du Cinema, holds the best attributes for a debut. Not only does it pantomime so many of his future themes and shooting style, but it denotes the strong voice of an artist struggling to capture the naive and halcyon days of youth... something he's been chasing all these years. It's also very Gallic. His young threesome of lovers (2 males and 1 female) begin in an idyllic sharing relationship and then discover the oscillations of time, society and their own careless decisions continually tug and pull them apart. All of this against the backdrop of a bustling 80's pop music scene and "Disorder" lives up to its raucous title.

Opening on the three young lovers in a car during a rainstorm, their open relationship is immediately established as Anne (Anne Gisel Glass) leans into the font seat and kisses both Ivan (Wadeck Stanczak) and Henri (Lucas Belvaus, himself a future filmmaker). The trio break into a music shop, hoping to steal some instruments for their band. Little do they know, the owner is still in the building and catches them in the act. In an impulsive moment, Ivan kills the shop owner and the three make their escape. Anne is confused and devastated by the action, but Ivan and Henri attempt to go on with their lives. It's not long after, though, that their guilty conscience eats away at them. Anne decides to choose only one of them as her lover, and she chooses Henri. Unable to cope with her complicity, she eventually leaves both of them. Henri and Ivan try to carry on with their band, earn a studio contract and navigate the tempestuous relationships that come with a struggling band. Drummer Xavier (Remi Martin) loses his girlfriend to band member Gabriel (Simon de Bosse). Ivan falls in love with their manager's girlfriend, Cora (Corinne Dacla). Studio contracts come and go as the band can never find stable footing together. In typical Assayas fashion, "Disorder" is a merry-go-round for flirtations, break-ups and longing phone calls that yearn for simpler, quieter days. But that's the beauty of his cinema. The first ten minutes of "Disorder" sets the viewer up for a Bonnie and Clyde style thriller with the lovers on the run. Yet, not a single police officer shows up. The tension lies in the psychological storm that brews in the heads and hearts of Anne, Henri and Ivan. Like Christine (Virgine Ledoyen) in "Cold Water" (1994) and so many other Assayas protagonists, they're fragile embodiments... prone to depression, confusion and rambling, searching for happiness but finding only bitterness.
As a first film, "Disorder" isn't without its faults. The few scenes of the band performing don't give any insight into why they seem so popular or even merit a studio contract. In the annuls of bad 80's synth/guitar rock, they don't even seem to earn a place there. Some of the secondary characters feel less inspired and motivated than in future Assayas films. And, at times, even Ivan and Henri seem to be scarcely drawn caricatures of alienated French youth. Still, "Disorder" overcomes these precocious attempts in its final act as Henri, Ivan and Anne have grown up a little and developed in the real world over time. There's the omnipresent Assayas personal disaster to overcome, but "Disorder" creates a tender order in the final minutes as Anne makes a phone call to Henri and we fade to black. If nothing else, "Disorder" reveals that Assayas has that quiet knockout ending in him from the very beginning.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.7

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Scott Frank’s brooding “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a step above the other rote Liam Neeson action vehicles out there as of late. The film does set itself apart right from the beginning, as its title sequences are displayed against a stark backdrop as Neeson walks towards the camera down a flight of steps after committing the film’s opening act, which will haunt him more than we can yet guess. But for all its ambition, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” left me a bit cold, especially in its detective angle. My personal attachment for the procedural in crime films is well documented, and while “A Walk Among the Tombstones” will certainly impact those looking for a deviant serial killer flick, I wanted something a little more cerebral. Neeson’s Detective Scudder seems intelligent, yet Frank’s screenplay barely registers more than a minute or so on the actual progression of finding the killers. It’s all given in quick edits of eye witnesses succinctly describing a certain aspect of the murderers and the crime scene. It all felt a bit compact, rushed and too easy and, ultimately, disappointed me.

The Skeleton Twins

 Shame on the trailers for ruining would should have been the incandescent moment in Craig Johnson’s stellar “The Skeleton Twins”. Fortunately, the rest of the film is just as good as the impromptu lip sync between Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig that centerpieces the promotional marketing. And what’s even more surprising about the film are the performances from Wiig and Hader as estranged brother and sister who reconnect after Hader’s attempted suicide and spend a few weeks together. Both have deep familial issues they’re working through, and both actors reveal a stark humanity within cliched ‘indie’ paradigms. “The Skeleton Twins” excels at pretty much everything… even the secondary characters portrayed by Luke Wilson as Wiig’s husband and Ty Burrell as a past figure in Hader’s complicated love life. The emotions and repertoire stirred up throughout the film consistently reveal how messy, imperfect and, ultimately, affirming the curve balls of life routinely are.

The Equalizer

At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer”. This is quite possibly the worst film of the year. Feeling (and looking) like a throwback to the terrible action films of the 80’s- for goodness sakes the finale takes place in a Home Depotesque retail building that turns into the grounds for World War III- “The Equalizer” is dumb, loud and pretty much insulting to even fans of the action genre. Denzel Washington is the titular bad ass, brought out of bad assery retirement when a girl he befriends (Chloe Grace Moretz) becomes a punching bag for the Russian mafia. Oh yes, those Russkies with their full body tattoos and twirling black mustaches. He becomes untouchable, dealing his own brand of justice and befriending a chubby security guard along the way, teaching him the ways of life and destroying half of Boston without a single person noticing. “Then Melissa Leo shows up with husband Bill Pullman to utter lines like “he didn’t come here for forgiveness. He came here for permission!” “The Equalizer” is humorless, condescending and antiquated in just about every respect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Last Few Films I Saw, September edition

I've got to get out of these cinematic doldrums of late. Is it just me or have the last few months been lacking in interesting films?

 1. The Sacrament (2014)- I really like Ti West. His low-fi horror film "House of the Devil" will probably become annual Halloween viewing. This one is a found footage experiment concerning a Jonestown-like cult investigated by three journalists. It's decent. The "found footage" wall is continually broken as it winds down (who exactly is supposed to be shooting this footage now?) and it ends predictably. I couldn't help but think back to Gareth Evans' strong entry in "V/H/S 2" for the best cult-horror-found-footage film in years... if such a genre exists. Amy Seimetz as the sister of one of the journalists who leads them to the cult is very solid as usual.

2. God's Pocket (2014)- One of the last Philip Seymour Hoffman flicks also displays him on virtual auto-pilot as a down and out Philly hustler dealing with the shit of urban Philadelphia.... which means local hoods, stolen meat packaging trucks, a dead son-in-law and getting to screw Christina Hendricks. Based on a book by Pete Dexter (whose work is so rich for further films), "God's Pocket" is just too much of the same urban malaise.

3. The Drop (2014)- Urban malaise is done more acutely in Michael Roskam's "The Drop", namely because, unlike "God's Pocket", the secondary characters (especially Matthias Schoenaerts) feel alive and three dimensional. There's also novelist Denis Lehane's strict adherence to forgiveness and Catholic guilt that propels the basic moral complexity of the film. As the low-mannered and quiet barkeep caught up in the middle of underworld robberies and spent lifestyles, Tom Hardy scores again in a role that could have become rote. He makes it work. The relationship with equally damaged woman Noomi Rapace is sensitive and genuine as well. A very good, low-key atmospheric crime film.

4. Falling Point (1970)- Robert Hossein directs and minimally stars in this thriller about a group of men who kidnap a rich man's daughter and extort him for money. What's unique about this film is that it jettisons the usual action and focuses on the psychological attachment that develops between captor (Johnny Halladay) and captive (beautiful Pascale Rivault) as they wait in a lonely beach cabin. Basically a chamber piece, "Falling Point" is great for the way Hossein (as usual) exerts so much through little dialogue. The eyes of Hallyday say everything about his doubts and reservations when the time comes and the shootout on the sandy dunes harks back to Hossein's love for the western. Hard to find, but well worth the hunt.

5. The Green Berets (1968)- It would be easy to dismiss John Wayne's Vietnam film was gung-ho Americana, but that's too easy. It's much better than that. Dealing with the war at the height of its volcanic temperament both here and abroad, "The Green Berets" satisfies its anti-war clique by addressing their concerns in the beginning and then embedding a liberal reporter with Wayne's group as they try and defend an outpost in the Vietnam jungle, questioning many of the film's attitudes towards the event. The war scenes are admirably filmed (except for a few model/dummy explosion scenes that are straight B-movie stuff) and even my lackluster admiration for Wayne as an actor is subdued by the rich characterizations and easy sentimentality.

6. This Is Not A Film (2012)- Jafar Panahi's self exploration documentary shows what's best about Iranian film making- the ability to turn 'meta' at any moment and transform fiction into stunning reality. The first hour of the film documents Panahi's secluded lifestyle in his apartment- forbidden to make films and awaiting his final appeal decision from an Iranian court where he's facing 20 years for anti political film making. He acts out scenes from an unfinished script.... talks to his lawyers... deconstructs his own films he shows on TV... and then a casual meeting between the building custodian outside his door turns into an opportunity for Panahi to invest his time in someone else.

7. The Tit and the Moon (1994)- Bigas Luna's childhood fantasy film about a young boy's obsession with the breasts of a traveling circus woman (Mathilde May) after he becomes jealous of his newborn sibling. Like Luna's other 90's films (especially "Jamon, Jamon"), "The Tit and the Moon" is an elaborate soap opera where lust, fantasy, childhood and adulthood swirl around in high style. It's entertaining, but ultimately forgettable.

8. Johnny YesNo (1983)- Short film about a man (Jack Elliot) searching the neon streets for the woman of his dreams. Filmed in grainy black and white and featuring a weird soundtrack by the cult band Cabaret Voltaire, "Johnny YesNo" is like a Sex Pistols inspired film noir.

9. Play Dirty (1969)- Andre deToth's hard nosed, nihilistic war film stars Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport as renegades sent into the African desert to destroy a German oil depot. The scene where the men drag their military vehicles over a mountain and especially the ending are top notch sequences in a genre full of top notch sequences.

10. Lucy (2014)- Luc Besson's grrrrl power update of "La Femme Nikita" stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman infused with a drug that allows her to utilize 100% of her brain potential. Naturally she becomes the Terminator. As goofy and ludicrous as it is, I still found myself hugely entertained and even moved by "Lucy". There are a few scenes- namely Johansson's phone call to her mother and the downright weird ending- that linger in my mind.