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.

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