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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Yoshitaro Nomura Files: Stake Out

The title sequence of Yoshitaro Nomura's debut film, "Stake Out" (1958) lays its claim to the tradition of hard boiled cinema through its full screen display of one man's eyes, intently staring off into the distance, with the film's title scribbled across the image. It's an opening worthy of Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich. But the rest of the film is specifically Japanese... and completely in line with Nomura's penchant for 'proceduralism' coupled with the devastating personal consequences that law and order often bring upon the individual.

But, in the hands of Nomura, that devastation is parceled out carefully and distinctly. After a lengthy opening sequence in which two men travel by train through an oppressive heat to an unknown town, we begin to piece together the reason for their journey. They find a house where a seemingly non descript woman is sending her children off to school. The two men discover the perfect vantage point of the woman's house across the street in a hotel and take up residence where they begin to watch her activities every minute of the day. Through a parallel narrative, we find out the two men are detectives, sent to the town in hopes that a wanted fugitive will reacquaint himself with the woman who was his lover years earlier. The first two-thirds of "Stake Out" is just that.... the two cops watching, observing, note taking and following the woman as she goes about her daily routines and walking to the market. But there are subtle moments that raise the tension level profoundly. Nomura frames the first half of "Stake Out" from the men's high vantage point across the street. Mailmen and stumbling drunks become chess pieces in a mounting puzzle of suspicion. When will the fugitive show up? Is this seemingly normal woman a red herring? Like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window", the frame of spying becomes an intense visual metaphor for our own viewership and expectations on the genre. And then something does happen and "Stake Out" spirals into another direction... one that had me rooting not for the cops but for the woman caught up in the middle.

Like Nomura's later masterpiece, "The Castle of Sand" (1974), "Stake Out" uses the police procedural genre to touch on larger themes in life. In that film, the body of an unknown man uncovers a disastrous history of one family. In "Stake Out", the damnation is more intimate to one person. Without giving too much away, Nomura certainly emphasizes this drama in the way his camera collapses down as the woman does the same in the penultimate scene. After a series of images caught up in the perspective of watching and being watched, its an acutely personal moment that realizes there are personal consequences to all this.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Late Summer/Early Fall Songs

With fall around the corner.... its a high of 70 this weekend, finally... some songs that have been turning me on lately.

Can't wait for her new album. Her voice is just transfixing.

One song from an album that already ranks as one of the best of the year. And J Mascis on guitar! Long live 1997.

My unabashed song of the summer. Yea, call me weird, but I love it.

Friday, September 05, 2014

In Response To Professor Dewey Finn

The indefatigable Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has wrapped up the summer with another questionnaire. While it's been a while since I've participated in one of these, its not for lack of interest. These polls always tug and pull the best cinematic thoughts from my mind, and this one is no exception. My replies as follows:

1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you’d most like to see get the HARD DAY’S NIGHT or HEAD treatment 

 Radiohead. Although I don’t know how good it’d be considering Thom Yorke’s inherent introverted personality and the rest of the band’s general disdain for commercialism. 

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates? 

 “Gor”, “Sitting Target”, “These Are the Damned” Oliver Reed takes it!

 3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video 

 As someone who’s recently been hyper-exposed to the world of streaming and multimedia ways of finding films, the sheer quantity of hard-to-find, obscure and offbeat right at the tip of my fingers is something I’ve always hoped the Internet would allow. YouTube, Amazon and other (somewhat nefarious) sources have given me access to so many films I’d only heard about or remember through my forays among the VHS shops back in the day.

 4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

 Having said all the above, the agony of NOT being able to find a certain movie with all those resources is absolute madness. It’s haunts me for weeks trying to find that elusive title. I feel like Burgess Meredith with all his books and a pair of broken glasses.

 5) Favorite Robin Williams performance 

 I always really loved his role in “Cadillac Man”.

 6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie

 “Odd Man Out”

 7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema 

Oddest? I don't know but most disturbing clash of supposed peaceful harmony and real life is the Altamont stabbing captured in The Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter".

 8) Favorite movie about growing up 

 “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole”…. little seen movie from the late 90’s with Adrian Grenier and Clark Gregg that’s touching on so many levels.

 9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

Any bit of skin Jessica Alba flashes.

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie
       (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

Kathy Bates in “About Schmidt”

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming

Theater- Calvary
DVD- Medium, weird 1985 Polish film about, well a medium.
Streaming- Joseph Losey’s “The Lawless”

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie

Very odd director choice… and considering I’ve only seen 2 of his films, I suppose “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs”?

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?

Withers, because she was in some great 40’s noirs

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie
       character that you’ve heeded in real life

If you can't spot the sucker within the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.

15) Favorite movie about learning

I have no idea why it always stuck with me, but “Lean On Me”.

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but,
       for one reason or another, never made. These could be
       projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at
      one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached-- 
      and your "version" of the film might be the one with that
      lost director, for example (question submitted by
      Brian Doan, class of 2007) 

Always been fascinated by the tale of Serge Eisenstein’s cancelled “Que Viva Mexico”, which if history is true, actually produced tons of footage, but was later abandoned and cut into two short films with no real original director intention. It sounds awesome: A sort of travelogue/tribute to Mexico, traveling from the Mayan civilization to the Spanish colonial era to the revolution to a Day of the Dead celebration in the present day.

Double bill the newly restored “Que Viva Mexico” with “El Norte” for a trenchant journey through the land of our continenet to the south.

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material

Sidney Lumet and “The Wiz”

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor

Fav character actor, JK Simmons and his hilarious role in “Burn After Reading”

19) Favorite chase scene

The tailing scene of Popeye Doyle and Fernando Rey on foot in New York City and the subway… just a perfect example of sound, editing and camera position. Automobile chase: “Ronin”

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like
        proselytizing about right now

Really the entire career of Japanese director Yoshitaro Nomura, but especially his 1974 film "The Castle of Sand", one of his very few movies available on DVD. Just a terrific police procedural that goes to some devastatingly intimate places.

21) Favorite movie about high school

"Some Kind of Wonderful"

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance

“The Big Sleep”

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?

Sorry, no preference for either. I struggled to find anything interesting looking them up on IMDB.

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the
       upcoming awards season

This has been a terrible year for movies so far, but best performance I’ve seen that probably won’t get a shred of notice is Marion Cotillard in “The Immigrant”

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been
       a movie star

Janis Joplin…. So ripe for burned out, soulful portrayals of women singers. Then again, she probably achieved that in her short life without movie roles.

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie

“Diary of a Teenage Hitch Hiker”

27) Favorite odd couple

Howard the Duck and Lea Thompson

28) Flicker or Zeroville?

Hmm, is it bad that I have no idea what this question means?

29) Favorite movie about college

The nihilism I felt as presented in “The Rules of Attraction”

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite 
        under appreciated performance

Alfred Molina in "Boogie Nights"

31) Favorite movie about parenting

I plead the fifth not being a parent just yet.

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?


33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with
       which you are well familiar

Born and raised in Texas, we have a great legacy of filmmaking, and, by sheer designation, a lot of ground to cover.  South Texas, anything by Eagle Pennell. West Texas “The Last Picture Show” and Dallas, Texas “Office Space”. Central Texas, “Aint Them Bodies Saints”

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the 
       contemporary performer who most evokes their

Richard Widmark and Eward Norton

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted
       by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)

Paolo Sorrentino.... "The Consequences of Love" (2004), "The Family Friend" (2006), "This Must Be the Place" (2011) and "The Great Beauty" (2013)