Monday, July 28, 2014

 Is there anything more thrilling than the perfect final shot of a movie? Watch and let it soak in.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.5


 It’s a far-fetched idea, yes, but any film based on a popular graphic novel stretches the limitations of logic. “Snowpiercer” is no different, presenting a world frozen over by global warming with the remainder of the world’s inhabitants idling their time and surviving on a powerful train that criss-crosses the globe. Within this compartmentalized dystopian universe are classes divided by sections of the train and kept in line by armed forces serving the train‘s inventor, and it’s here that the eternal struggle between the haves and have nots plays out with kinetic, brutal force. “Snowpiercer”, long delayed and rumored to be a victim of widespread studio interference, emerges as a strong film with dazzling visual style, embedded humor and everything the fan-boy base could hope for…. Including a cute-as-can-be but kick butt young Asian girl (Ah-Sung Ko) and the everyman (Chris Pine) in which we can envision ourselves. I’ve long been a fan of Bong Joon-Ho, and here he continues to fascinate and elevate his material in unique and energetic ways. As the “tail section” people revolt their way to the front of the train, we’re given a variety of visual schemes, evil henchmen and plot developments. The violence is swift and brutal, continually challenging our expectations of who is the center point of the film. Just when we connect with someone, life in this rolling hell delivers a punch. And even though the comment on class divisions and social stratus is belabored, “Snowpiercer” eventually has a lot more on its mind. It’s one of the best films of the year and another notch in the auteur status of Bong Joon Ho.


As mentioned on this blog before, Texas cinema is about the longueur of life… hanging out, idling the days and the observation of developing relationships over periods of time. Richard Linklater is the undisputed master of this and with “Boyhood”, he undertakes his most ambitious marking of time yet. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same core actors, “Boyhood” is a remarkable exploration of not only our preconceived notions of time in the movies, but how the tired clich├ęs of a family drama can be inverted with truth and generosity. As Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up literally before our eyes, he deals with puberty, an annoying older sister (Linklater‘s own daughter Lorelei), introduction to the opposite sex and finally flying the nest for college. All these themes have been prolific in the annals of movie making, creating entire dramas out of each individual portion of life. In “Boyhood”, Linklater manages to craft an enveloping experience with them all. And it’s not only with the children, but in the failures, frustrations, and missteps of the parents as well. Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette provide strong roles as mother and estranged father, trying to hold things together as best they can in an ever-changing environment of spatial differences and asshole husbands. The word “experience” truly describes “Boyhood”. There are no huge third act emergencies or standard narrative shifts. Linklater simply allows the story to play out like real life, complete with small emotional breakdowns and skateboarding afternoons. It’s only after the quietly devastating final scene that I realized "Boyhood" wouldn't just stop there. We've watched these people grow up, and they'll continue on in real life.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Double Feature: Bigas Luna's Anguish and Caniche

Spanish filmmaker Bigas Luna, who passed away last year, is a relatively unknown exploration in cinema for me. His films are not talked about much. Add to the fact his work is largely ignored here in America and mostly unavailable on home video, and it becomes clear he's not regarded as an essential figure. Well, after seeing two of his films from different periods in his career, I can attest his influence should be seen by many. Making films from 1978 until 2010, Luna's biggest side note seems to be his penchant for telling stories with a decidedly twisted, perverse sense of morality... and the fact that he basically discovered young Penelope Cruz and cast her in his 1992 film "Jamon, Jamon". Pitched somewhere between the classical style of Carlos Saura and the more wildy ambitious, sexually frenzied new wave of Julio Medem and Pedro Almodovar, Luna is a case study I hope to further develop.

The more accessible of the two films discussed here is "Anguish". Released in 1987, it could best be described as an art-house slasher film. Even though that sounds boring, please give it a try. It starts out uneveningly… a cross between a psych-out grind house film and “Psycho” re-invented with Zelda Rubenstein as the domineering mother and centrifugal force behind her son’s desire to kill people and cut out their eyeballs. As the son/killer, Michael Lerner plays his role to weird perfection, full of smarmy glances, nervous ticks and an equally unhealthy fascination with caged birds. But after the son commits his first murder (full of blood pools and cheesy horror film chases), Luna turns the tables on the genre and “Anguish” becomes super-meta. We soon realize that the mother/son gore fest is a film-within-the-film and we’re introduced to a host of people sitting in a darkened theater watching a film (humorously called “The Mother”). The on-screen unpleasantness seems to be bothering some movie-going patrons, especially young and impressionable Pattie (Talia Paul), whose squeamish reactions to every eye-slicing scene becomes more and more troubling. Added to the discomfort of the movie watchers is the incessant hypnosis that mother Rubenstein inflicts upon her son on-screen, complete with spiraling records, slow moving snails and her repetitive chants. Pattie has to get away from it all and exits the theater where she soon becomes witness to a variety of murders perpetrated by someone supremely affected by the slasher film. “Anguish” becomes a Chinese box of murders with the fictional film (art) imitating real life. Murders on-screen by the fictional son become intertwined with real life and Luna does a terrific job of mixing both time lines together so we (the real viewer in all this) become disoriented as to what’s real and what’s fictional.

“Anguish” is a bracing deconstruction of the slasher genre with something more important on its mind. And all of this is executed without a hint of sarcasm, irony or wink-wink fetishism. This is no 1980’s version of “Scream”. In fact, it plays the violence for dirty realism. Not only does he film bodies being dragged out of sight in the restroom with a perverse point of view, but the many images of people scurrying around already lifeless bodies attempting to take cover from incoming gunfire, become genuinely unnerving examples of random terror. In this day and age of repeated public shootings, YouTube suicide rants and screwed up manifestos, “Anguish” looks and feels like a prescient affair. Like the warning the film-within-the-film gives at the beginning (and a gimmick taken by provocateur Gaspar Noe years later for “I Stand Alone”), “Anguish” wants to disturb… and it achieves that brilliantly.

“Caniche” (“Poodle”), released in 1979, is Luna’s second film. Starring Angel Gove (who would act in many of his pictures) and Consol Tura as brother and sister in a completely unhealthy relationship, the film feels like an assault on a lot of things- including the domesticality of the upper class and our ever prevalent reliance of affection on animals over human beings. “Caniche” is also a film of its time. Spain, late 70’s… when a number of filmmakers were forced to convey a message against their political situation in nuanced and allegorical ways. The innocent victim in the middle of “Caniche” is Danny, a whimpering poodle forced to bear witness (and sometimes partake) of the various sexual perversions and psychological battle between brother and sister. Eloisa is constantly pulling the dog to her, settling him in comfortable positions and feeding him. Bernardo- the more silent of the couple- holds hidden feelings about his sister, becoming jealous when she begins seeing an older friend/doctor of the family. In addition, Bernardo fills his days hunting stray dogs to lock up in his basement, not only for nutrition for Danny, but to hold them for more nefarious reasons. “Caniche” is not for the faint of heart. Luna builds the story into a festering, perverse explosion that sees Bernardo literally morph into a hungry, horny, rabid dog. Its only fitting that the finale should be Danny high tailing it out of the house after the dust has settled. For an angry, veiled political shout, “Caniche” ends on an unexpectedly happy note for its conscientious observer.

Visually, “Caniche” is a fragmented effort. Full of low-level point of view shots (perhaps to indicate the perspective of a dog) and images of hands, legs, eyes and grassy exteriors, I can only recall a few times in which a character was shown in full body. It’s a decidedly intense way to build the story, leaving out more narrative than it includes. Then again, there are certain actions performed by brother and sister in “Caniche” that are better left unviewed in all their disturbing glory.

"Anguish" is available on Region 1 DVD. "Caniche" is unavailable on DVD.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last Few Films I've Seen.... Summer Doldrums

1. Ida (2014)- Snowy settings, dreary interiors and square black and white cinematography.... yes we're in Polish cinema territory. But those cliches aside, Pawel Pawlikowski's mannered character study of an incoming nun discovering her family's hushed history is quietly moving. And young Agata Trzebuchowska's indelible face is just made for black and white.

 2. Cheap Thrills (2013)- Clumsily made and over-acted, E.L.Katz's hipster gore film makes me hate actor David Koechner even more. Two buddies (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) stumble into a couple looking for demented fun, and "Cheap Thrills" turns into an endurance test... not because of the escalating violence but due to its smarmy logic and uninteresting characters.

3. A Safe Place (1971)- Indie director Henry Jaglom's first film got me interested due to its starring role by the beautiful Tuesday Weld. It's story sounded even more intriguing: a film that charts the fragmented life of a young girl and the decisions she makes in romance. If it was anything like Weld's performances in Frank Perry's under seen "Play It As It Lays", I'd be in for a treat. Instead, we get a head-spinning blend of hippie jargon, long and undisciplined scenes, and a weird Orson Welles as some sort of father figure/magician/homeless park guy. Really, really bad. But then again, I never quite got Jaglom.

4. Blood Ties (2013)- I really wanted to like Guillame Canet's 70's crime film. Written by James Gray, it has his fingerprints in the textured story of good vs bad brothers and the women/fathers caught up in the middle, yet it plays the conflict way too broadly. There are too many head-scratching, beyond belief moments towards the end and everyone feels like they're acting so much. It is nice to see Billy Crudup return to the screen, though.

5. True Detective (2014)- I doubt I'll see a better TV or movie event this year. This is one brilliant, psychologically complex murder mystery that weaves its Southern jargon around a smoldering story that spans two decades. The places this show goes is scary... and not the haunted Louisianna settings but the addictions and outlooks on life spewed from its worn detectives played to perfection by Woody Harrleson and Matthew McCoughnahey. This scene alone is incredible.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Regional Review: Drive-In (1976)

There's an extended scene in Rod Amateau's "Drive-In" that places a majority of the film's characters circling each other at a roller skate rink as they flirt, fight and discuss their upcoming weekend plans. Not only does this scene feel uniquely antiquated due to its now foreign setting of a by-gone juvenile playtime (which I took part in weekly myself) that no teenager probably even knows about today, but it creates an innocent introduction to a host of kids without a hint of sarcasm or irony that would surround a scene like this today. Basically, "Drive-In" is a film of its time... and its a wonderfully realized representation of small town Texas.

Filmed in the flat, suburban town of Terrell, Texas (approximately 30 miles east of Dallas), "Drive-In" centers its action around the now defunct drive-in theater that once existed in the small town. Sadly, its now a gas station. We're introduced to a variety of people. There's Orville (Glenn Morshower, the man best known for playing Aaron Pierce on "24"), the laid back good kid who finds himself unwillingly fighting for the affections of beautiful Glowie (Lisa Lemole), even though her ex-boyfriend Enoch (Billy Milliken) is the leader of a local gang. Two older men, Will (Gordon Hurst) and Gifford (Trey Wilson, always remembered for his role as Nathan Arizona in the Coen Brothers "Raising Arizona") plan on robbing the drive-in theater later that night. Local town stud Bill (Kent Perkins) and his girlfriend have taken the first step of engagement, but they are having second thoughts. Throw in the casual mix of best friends, little brothers and adults trying to maintain a grasp on the teenagers and "Drive-In" resembles the many efforts that track teenage angst and emotional confusion through the course of one long, aimless night.

Director Rod Amateau is an interesting study. Mainly working in television, his only other film credit is the 1987 "Garbage Pail Kids Movie". From a visual stand-point, "Drive-In" is ordinary. It's the witty, Texas-lingo'ed script by Bob Peete that makes the film. Full of head-spinning analogies and aw-shucks sayings ("whoo, whee bless your mom and dad" when one character sees an amply bossomed girl), it also features some wise, philosophical moments, especially in its recreation of young love. As Glowie, Lisa Lemole (beautiful beyond belief) gets the best of them. A bit of the eye-roll is necessary at times, but that's the most charming thing about the film. Owing itself to a long line of Texas cinema, we seem to be indebted to the listless days and nights that dot our childhood. From filmmakers Richard Linklater to Texas perennial Eagle Pennell, the minute focus of a small group over the course of a short period of time has been the cathartic ambition of Texas filmmaking. And the ordinary Texas setting of Terrell fits right into the catalog of normal landscapes playing host to larger-than-life events that shape and formulate the young lives of Texas men and women. Whether its a drive-in theater, a local watering hole ("Last Night At the Alamo") or the last night of high school ("Dazed and Confused"), what really matters are the connections we create and destroy at pivotal times in our lives.